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College costs are skyrocketing, but students aren't benefiting



I'm still young by many measures, but there's one big thing that sets me apart from The Youth: I am officially far too old to go to boarding school.

My fascination with boarding schools is likely rooted in a book, though I can't pinpoint which—in literature, boarding schools are as prevalent as orphans. Dispatching the parents via death or distance is necessary for the protagonist to learn, make mistakes and grow without 80 percent of the story being stern parental lectures. Instead, boarding-school kids get to tie together sheets to sneak out of third-story windows, eat plain but hearty porridge and sleep in tiny shared garret bedrooms with newfound friends. Bliss.

The irony is that I would have been terrible at boarding school: hated my roommate, flouted lights-out, gotten in trouble for sleeping through breakfast, and then failed maths (yes, maths; the imaginary boarding school I'm flunking out of is British) because I skipped class to nap in my room.

That's pretty much how I squandered college—five years of it. I was lucky enough to graduate during the recession with a part-time job at City Weekly, but it was my work at the college paper, not my psychology degree, that opened the door to a world of independence instead of the door to my parents' basement.

Most people see college as a magic bullet, whether you're a good student ("Oh, you'll really love college!") or a lackluster one ("Oh, college will be so much better."). But the "college experience" is as much a fantasy as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry.

College is just school. Looser, more customizable school, but school nonetheless. Attendance still makes up a stupid percentage of your grade, and people still weasel out of group projects. There are good professors but bad ones, too, and professors you'll never see because they have graduate students teaching their classes. If all goes well (or well enough, at least; Cs get degrees), at the end of six years or so, you'll be mailed a piece of paper that allows you to add a line to your résumé.

It's different for everyone, of course. I did know people who loved college. Most of them are still there, working on further degrees or teaching new generations of bright-eyed students. Even I was once a bright-eyed student—for at least a week at the beginning of each new semester, flushed with giddy optimism that new highlighters and fancy divided notebooks would transform me into a successful college student.

It never worked. I found few moments worthy of a movie montage in crowded lecture halls or sun-dappled campus lawns. More often than not, what I learned in classes was what the professors wanted to hear and how to repeat their views back to them in essay form.

I never lost my love for color-coding notes, but after all it had been built up to be, college was scarily disappointing. Those studying science or engineering were acquiring skills that most of the population doesn't have and lining up high-paying jobs in their field. We idealists who chose the humanities were acquiring boxes of marked-up papers and heavy literature anthologies. What the hell was I doing with my life, besides throwing away scholarships and my parents' money and expectations?

Looking at my college diploma elicits a mix of guilt (all those skipped classes!) and resentment (all those bullshit required French classes!), but not getting it was never an option. The problems with higher education are too big to address in a gazillion columns (nope, not a math major), but one pitfall is that college today is what high school used to be—the bare-minimum requirement for most good jobs. Yet, while wages in most fields remain stagnant, the costs of tuition, school fees and textbooks are skyrocketing. College isn't about gaining knowledge; it's about money. And colleges—not students and not the economy—are the ones profiting.

I did wrest some meaning out of my five years, despite my failings and the system's. Reading The Working Poor: Invisible in America in a ... history(?) class my freshman year was the first thing that opened my sheltered suburban brain to the kind of inequalities that City Weekly reports on. Later, I realized that working full time—at a bookstore and at my college newspaper—was more edifying than sitting in a classroom, and I found out in time that I didn't want to be an English teacher and did want to be a journalist. For the most part, these discoveries came by way of non-classroom experiences, successes and struggles.

Despite knowing that, each fall brings with it nostalgia for school and the potential in the pages of a blank notebook. Maybe grad school wouldn't be such a bad idea! If I bought a fancy new planner, I could totally find a way to fit it in.

Then I step back from the planners and remember that grad school wouldn't have gotten me to this point. Working did. Despite the seductive promises of shiny brochures and academic advisers, more school doesn't necessarily equal more professional or personal success. Formative years are formative years, for making mistakes and growing without parents' stern lectures or safety nets, whether the protagonist is in boarding school or college, or working at their first real job.

I'm too old for boarding school and too young to be writing advice columns. Still, whatever you're doing with your formative years, I hope more will come from them than a dusty box of graded papers and a lifetime of debt.