Take Two # 35: Reflections on College

By Kyra-lin Hom

A couple weeks ago, my uncle (with two daughters in high school right now) asked my boyfriend and I what we would have done differently in college. I think my aunt and uncle were hoping that, since we've both had a year to reflect upon our undergraduate decisions, their daughters would at least listen to us. The question led to a brief discussion and then we all moved on. But even weeks later, the question has stuck with me.

Late April of this year, the American Post announced that over 53% of recent college graduates were unemployed. Many of those that were employed were working jobs that didn't require a college education such as minimum wage waitressing or retail. Add on that in 2011 the average graduating college student owed over $23,000 in student loans (10% of students owed over $54,000 and 3% owed over $100,000) – a number that tuition inflation is only increasing – and it becomes apparent that this is an intimidating time to be young in the US.

To put things in perspective, in Quebec college students have been on strike from school since February 13th in protest of Premier Jean Charest's proposal to increase university tuition from $2,168 to $3,793 over the next 5 years. Just pause here. Think about those numbers. Okay, now you can move on.

Well, this is a near 75% jump compared to American universities' increase of only 5.6% between 2011 and 2012. But that itty bitty US increase bumps the average US tuition fee up to between $20,000 and $25,000 per year ($15-$20,000 for public and $30-35,000 for private). At this rate, a 4-year college education will cost about $350,000 by 2028. I mean, go Canadian students for having a spine, but I'd take that $3,793 rate over my alma matter's $40,000+ any day.

All right, you get it, college is gouge-your-eyes-out expensive and hardly worth it just to qualify for holding a mattress ad on a street corner. So what do you do? What does this mean for incoming college freshmen? And I do still this that going to college is a good idea. After asking around, here's what me and mine have come up with.

Starting day one freshmen orientation, you are going to have advisers, professors, etc. telling you to follow your dreams. They are going to say that you shouldn't study what you think will make you money, you should study what you love. To this I say fair enough, but remember that you are going to have to survive in the outside world after the college cloister is over. For these 'adults,' their lives revolve around college. Advisers are likely working at their alma matter and professors live and breathe their academic worlds – this is why they are qualified to teach you. Unless you want that for yourself, you're going to have to think of the bigger picture.

I was in the Honors Program in college, as were a lot of my friends. We were almost all double majors or major-minors or some other, equally academically impressive combination. Only a small handful of us got it right. For the record, I don't think I was one of them. These 'right' people doubled in, for example, film production and engineering or graphic design and business. These are combinations that straddle the line between the artistic and commercial. Another great combo would have been philosophy and mathematics, straddling liberal academics and the sciences. It's not just about studying the material, it's about having the evidence that you did on paper.

I didn't do that. I didn't just double major, I double degreed in screenwriting and East Asian studies, thinking I was going to get my doctorate in some East Asian field without really thinking through what that meant. That is probably my biggest regret about my college career, weighing too heavily to one side of the education spectrum. Had I been thinking, I would have dumped the East Asian studies degree and picked up marketing or business. After all, I can still learn about Asia without taking a bunch of classes. That is what books and electives are for.

So advice for incoming freshman? Unless you plan on pursuing a career as a researcher or college professor, only listen to their career advice with half an ear. Yes, study what you love. But if what you love is on the list of “25 college majors with the highest unemployment rates,” pick something practical to go with it. You'll thank me later, I promise. And to parents of high schoolers, you're welcome.

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