Look Ma, no epiphany! What not to expect from college

by Beacon Staff • January 28, 2009

I have two roommates. Last November, one told us she wouldn't be back in January. It was her junior year, and she finally realized she simply wasn't happy here. That nagging little voice we all hear from time to time-"Am I in the right place? Am I doing the right things?"-suddenly became too loud to ignore.

Odds are you could tell a similar story. One study by the US Department of Education found that 60 percent of American college students attend more than one school before earning a bachelor's degree.

Transfer rates have risen steadily in the last few decades. There are some explanations. For one, technology has created more marketing tools, luring students from one college to another. And as always, rising costs bear some blame.

But there's one explanation that's much harder to quantify: the impact of heightened expectations.

Even for the 40 percent of us who will never transfer, it's useful to consider what we expect from college, and why. Our generation thinks about college like we think about the perfect pair of jeans or the ideal spouse. It's out there, somewhere, waiting for some cosmic event to unite us. High school guidance counselors say it's all a matter of finding "the right fit," Goldilocks language that suggests, if only we search hard enough, we can each find a college that's just right.

And finding your college is just the start. Once you get there, things will be amazing. College is supposed to be the best experience of your life. You'll figure out who you really are. You'll meet extraordinary people. They will be your best friends forever. And you'll have so. Much. Fun.

Part of this expectation could stem from the rotten leftovers of an 80s-era culture-movies like iWeekend at Bernie's/i and iAnimal House/i-that revealed college is a four-year party. If you remember all of it, you did something wrong.

Our generation has retained and amplified that basic spirit of hedonism, but we've added new expectations to it. We want college to include parties, but we also want it to end with a job that pays well. We are hyperaware of how competitive our chosen industries are, and we expect college to help us push through the anxiety that surrounds terms like "entry-level" and "reacute;sumeacute;." (You probably got a little depressed just now, thinking of yours.)

We also expect emotional satisfaction at college-to see spelled out, in bold letters, answers to all the cloudy questions of adolescence. And we expect these answers to be waiting for us if only we have the right experience. If only we find the right fit.

You have to wonder: What sort of adults are born of a generation that expects self-actualization to be a thing we can track down with a search engine? How prepared does this thinking leave us for post-college life?

A better training ground for the real world than college might be high school. High school, unlike college, isn't about finding the perfect scene-it's about functioning in the one you've got. It's about working with people you might not like, instead of surrounding yourself with the "inspiration" of "like-minded" people. It's about finding success in an environment you can't always control, instead of finding an environment that will guarantee your success.

When cultural hubris leads us to expect that happiness is something we all stumble across in due time, we can lose determination at the first signs of adversity. That's not to say college students transfer because they can't confront the realities of work. But an overweening presumption about what college entitles us to could be one cause for such rampant listlessness.

Even the 40 percent of us who won't transfer ought to remember: a sense of happiness or fulfillment doesn't occur by osmosis. It's not a feeling that's been crafted, waiting out there for us to find it. And it's not included in the cost of tuition.

iBrent Baughman is a junior writing and information broadcasting major and a columnist for /iThe Beacon.,Brent Baughman, iBeacon/i columnist