What is the college experience? Depending on who you are, your life circumstances, and why you decided to enroll, college can mean different things. College is often portrayed in books and films as a place where young people live away from home in ivy-covered residence halls. We frequently see college depicted as a place with a major focus on big-time sports, heavy drinking, and partying. Yes, you’ll find some of that at some colleges, but most students today don’t move away from home, don’t live on campus, and don’t see much ivy. College is really far more than any single image you might carry around in your head.
College can be defined in many ways. For starters, college is an established process designed to further formal education so that students who attend and graduate will be prepared for certain roles in society. Today, those roles are found especially in what has become known as the “information economy,” which means that most college graduates are going to be earning their living by creating, managing, and using information. Because the amount of available information expands all the time, your college classes can’t possibly teach you all you need to know for the future. The most important skill you will need to learn in college is how to keep learning throughout your life.
American society values higher education, which explains why the United States has so many colleges and universities, currently more than 4,400. College is the primary way in which people achieve upward social mobility or the ability to attain a higher standard of living. In earlier centuries a high standard of living was almost always a function of family background. Either you were born into power and money or you spent your life working for others who had power and money. In most countries today, however, receiving a college degree helps level the playing field for everyone. A college degree can minimize or eliminate differences due to background, race, ethnicity, family income level, national origin, immigration status, family lineage, and personal connections. Simply put, college participation is about ensuring that more people have the opportunity to be evaluated on the basis of merit rather than family status, money, or other forms of privilege. It makes achieving the American dream possible.
College is also important because it is society’s primary means of preparing citizens for leadership roles. Without a college degree, a person will find it difficult to be a leader in a community, a company, a profession, or the military.
Another purpose of a four-year college degree is to prepare students for continuing their education in a graduate or professional school. If you want to become a medical doctor, dentist, lawyer, or college professor, a four-year college degree is just the beginning.
College is about thinking, and it will help you understand how to become a “critical thinker,” someone who doesn’t believe everything he or she hears or reads but instead looks for evidence before forming an opinion. Developing critical-thinking skills will empower you to make sound decisions throughout your life.
Although college is often thought of as a time when traditional-age students become young adults, we realize that many of you are already adults. Whatever your age, college can be a time when you take some risks, learn new things, and meet new and different people, all in a relatively safe environment. It’s OK to experiment in college, within limits, because that’s what college is designed for.
College will provide numerous opportunities for developing a variety of social networks, both formal and informal. These networks will help you make friends and develop alliances with faculty members and fellow students who share your interests and goals. Social networking Web sites (such as Facebook and Twitter) provide a way to enrich your real-life social networks in college.
College definitely can and should be fun, and we hope it will be for you. You will meet new people, go to athletic events and parties, build camaraderie with new friends, and feel a sense of school spirit. Many college graduates relive memories of college days throughout their lives, fanatically root for their institution’s athletic teams, return for homecoming and class reunions, and encourage their own children to attend their alma mater. In fact, you might be a legacy student, someone whose parents or grandparents attended the same institution as you do.
In addition to being fun, college is a lot of work. Being a college student means spending many hours studying each week, staying up late at night, taking high-stakes exams, and possibly working harder than you ever have. For many students college becomes much like a job, with defined duties, expectations, and obligations.
Most important is that college will be a set of experiences that will help you to further define and achieve your own purpose. You might think that you know exactly what you want to do with your life and where you want to go from here. Or, like many students, you might be struggling to find where you fit in life and work. It is possible that as you discover more about yourself and your abilities, your purpose for coming to college will change. In fact, the vast majority of college students change their academic major at least once during the college years, and some students find that they need to transfer to another institution to meet their academic goals.
How would you describe your reasons for being in college and at this particular college? Perhaps you, like the vast majority of college students, see college as the pathway to a good job. Maybe you are in college to train or retrain for an occupation, or maybe you have recently experienced an upheaval in your life. Perhaps you are here to fulfill a lifelong dream of getting an education, or maybe you are bored or in a rut and see college as a way out of it. As it happens, many students enter college without a purpose that has been clearly thought out. They have just been swept along by life’s events, and now here they are.