Should I Stay or Should I Go

The cost, the calling, and the calm of college

By TD Mischke

Published on Sept 1, 2010

"I suppose I could collect my books and get on back to school," Rod Stewart sang in that now-stale oldie. The option always sounded pretty good to me. It smacked of renewal and a refreshing shift in direction. I could damn near smell the autumn leaves and see the profs in bow ties welcoming him back. Another option presented in the song was to "steal my daddy's cue and make a living out of playing pool." That never sounded as appealing. I worried it would lead to incarceration somewhere down the line.

This month many a Rod and Maggie will grab their books and get on back to school. These are the days when one can almost feel the energy shift in the cities. The pace and palpable vibration of life has picked up speed. Spring gets credit for being the season of new life, but for me it's always been September. That's when the Twin Cities seem to wake from a gentle slumber and get back up on their feet. I think it's those whirling engines of education, roaring back to life, that serve as our collective alarm clock.

College has always offered something few deans have been willing to fully exploit in their sales pitch: the chance to put all dreams on hold while groundwork is laid for their eventual realization. No one need lament a poor job while in college; the good gig comes later. No one needs to grow up; one is still a schoolkid, after all. No one should feel stuck in a rut; the nonstop information assimilation is altering the ground beneath one by the week. The interaction with scores of other student-thinkers is providing pleasant shocks to the brain. The gray matter is taking in wonders from many directions, socially and academically; all is in flux and wondrous transition. Yet paradoxically, college represents a glorious holding pattern that will forever be fondly remembered for just that reason. There is this grace period between one's freewheeling youth and the coming rigidity of day-to-day adult existence, a period to simply be with friends, and learn, unencumbered.

Consequently, collecting one's books and getting on back to school has always seemed as welcome a course of action as any. What's not to love?

Well, plenty, I'm told—most glaringly, the cost.

More than ever in our history, the question of whether college is actually worth the money looms large for students. Education costs have vastly outpaced all wage inflation. Many graduates can now expect to struggle for 15 to 20 years to pay back exorbitant loans, giving up certain material dreams in the process.

Is it still worth it? Damn right it is.

There is a headstrong drive and inhumane pace in today's work force that has become almost embarrassing to anyone who loves the sublime sweetness of life. We have cranked up the competitive pressure and muscled the adrenalin-fueled cracks of the whip to a dangerous intensity, all in the interest of being a top player on the world economic stage.

If that's how it has to be, then so be it, but it begs all the more for a period of down time in a young person's life, a stretch for consideration of the type of person one wants to be and the area of interest one wants to embrace. It makes it all the more important that there be some kind of calm before the storm, where reasoned internal arguments can play out in the soft courtyard grass and golden autumn sunshine of a sprawling campus, where the question can be asked, what the hell is this thing called life anyway, and what on earth is my role going to be over the next few decades?

Many a dorm room has been the site of a radical shift in direction, a shift that has come from those days, weeks, and months where a future could be mulled over at a reasonable pace and different avenues of study pursued experimentally through random course selection. College isn't the only way for such thinking to play out, but for many it's a necessary way. It carries that magical mix of diverse human contact and the myriad of paths made available for one's boot heels. Handled well, it can ward off those future regrets that might come creeping in as "the morning sun, when it's in your face, really shows your age."

I'm told, and I accept, that college has ceased to be the automatic ticket to a better financial future. I'll argue it's still the grand ticket to a richer life.


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