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College is Much More Than a Means to a Higher Salary

Most entries into the debate about whether or not it's worth it to go to college focus on the financials. How much debt will you incur? Will you land a job that allows you to easily pay it off? Which degrees lead to higher salaries? As if college should be reduced to an accounting exercise.

To complicate matters, the field of software engineering has a history of producing billionaire college drop-outs: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, and graduate school dropouts Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Of course, all of these billionaires started college, and besides, the vast majority of college drop-outs never achieve even millionaire status (survivorship bias). People also have the belief that it is entirely possible to be a self-taught software developer, and on the face of it, they're right, it is possible. Especially with today's online resources from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) such as edX and Coursera to coding sites such as Codecademy and Treehouse, not to mention all of the blogs, books, and tutorials out there, learning how to program is well within reach for $2,000 or less so why spend $60,000 or more on a 4-year college education?

I think there's something missing from all of this financial analysis of college, and HN commentor threatofrain, in a debate about online learning resources, gets at part of it:
I have a feeling a lot of why people fail with these online resources is motivation, and I think it's why Khan Academy, while it is a forward-looking treasure of education, has failed to achieve revolution despite dramatically improving the access of education.

A lot of people need external mechanisms to keep themselves motivated, such as parental pressure, peer pressure, shame, and so on. As soon as people leave college, most people never learn a tall order of knowledge ever again, and most people let their existing knowledge rapidly decay. And then they're going to tell you a story about how everything they learned in college is useless, and how jobs want something entirely different.
A lot of this rings true for me. If someone doesn't have the motivation to get through college classes, it's unlikely that they'll have the motivation to learn on their own with online videos and exercises. I've watched my fair share of both online videos and in-the-flesh lectures, and I have to say, I've been almost always disappointed with the online variety. While in theory we should be able to take the best speakers and record them giving great lectures to be distributed online for all to experience, that does not seem to be the case in practice.

There is a big difference between watching a video online and actually being there, and retina displays haven't bridged that chasm. Regardless of the display quality, it seems that most online videos are mediocre at best. It is true that the average professor wasn't that great when I was in college, either. When professors taught straight from the textbook, I found that I was better off studying the book outside of class and using the lectures as review to cement the material in my memory. In most cases the professors probably didn't have much choice since they couldn't depend on students reading the material outside of class, the professors had to teach out of the textbook. I cannot deny that these lectures were boring, but they still weren't as bad as the stuff I've found online.

While some professors weren't all that good, the best ones were beyond excellent. Taking a course from a great professor was an incredible learning experience, and there's no way that experience could be reproduced online. I had a modern physics professor who would explore the quantum and relativistic physics of modern technology, like scanning electron microscopes and GPS, interactively with the class. I had a computer science professor who led class discussions on cutting-edge microprocessor designs. I had a history of science professor who packed a 600-seat lecture hall every class because he was a force of nature, and the energy in the room during his lectures was palpable. These professors were not all that rare, either. I would have at least one out of four courses each semester that I thoroughly enjoyed with an excellent professor, and that rate went up as I got into the more advanced courses. Having personal access to these professors in and outside of class was even more of a benefit that would be impossible to reproduce online.

Great professors are but one resource that colleges have over the self-taught route. Some other ones are the facilities, the other students, and the general environment of the college. A college has all kinds of places to explore and learn, and you're constantly surrounded by other people that are also exploring and learning. The entire atmosphere is infectious and helps motivate you to keep on exploring in a way that would be difficult to maintain if you were on your own. Learning is hard enough; why make it harder by isolating yourself from other people that could help you along?

College also provides a relatively safe place to experiment with ideas and push yourself in ways that you normally wouldn't out in the real world. This aspect of college is something I wish I would have taken more advantage of at the time. I would have spent extra time exploring some of the more interesting course material and building personal projects to apply the things I was learning. I was of the mindset that learning the material and doing well on tests was all I needed to succeed in college, but that is a narrow view of what college offers.

That is not to say that I had much free time. I was a member of KHK, a professional electrical engineering fraternity, and had a year-round internship where I put in 20 hours a week during the school year. I took advantage of the college social life (another important part of college), and made some lasting friendships, including my future wife. These are all incredibly valuable things to me, and I would have missed out on them if I hadn't gone to college. The cost of tuition and my post-graduation salary are almost secondary to the non-financial value I got out of college. I can't even put a price on most of the experiences I had in those years.

Like everything in life, you get out of college what you put into it. You can't expect to pay tuition and have an education spoon-fed to you. That tuition payment creates an opportunity, nothing more. It's up to you to put in the time and effort to transform that opportunity into a set of experiences that will shape your future and that you'll remember for the rest of your life. That opportunity is worth every penny.