Dear Young Man Planning to Skip College:
In the wake of this spring's college decision deadline for America's two and half million prospective university students, I have been thinking about your situation.
I heard someone muse out loud the other day about how a young person could do well to simply lie about having a college degree. While reserving ethical judgment on such an act of treachery, let's consider the practical pros and cons.
Claiming to have attended college is indeed less expensive than actually attending college. Few prospective employers confirm college credentials anyway. And the fact that nearly six in ten American college students today are women indicates that cynicism about college is on the rise among young men.
That is understandable: You could be earning money and gaining fulltime work experience for the next four years. You would also be liberated from student conduct codes, dormitory food, grades, and expectations that you show up to class on time. On your own, you can buy books and read them at your own pace, if you choose to read at all. You can act on your personal preferences for people and study topics.
But here is what you would miss out on.
If you attended an elite research university, you would be asked not to live according to your preferred schedule, your preferred circle of people, or even your preferred topic of study. I hope you would come to see that this is to your benefit. We would prod you to reinvent your preferences, in a way that would make your life bigger than you could have known.
We would help you build a support system that you would need to spend four years outside your comfort zone - regularly being confronted by persons who are not like you, with beliefs and backgrounds unlike yours, capable of testing your own deepest assumptions.
If your goals include, say, starting a business in Massachusetts, I would ask you to consider living for a year in our arts and humanities residential college, so that you could gain the insights that come from being around students and faculty who excel in "right-brain" thinking.
If you're an aspiring artist or performer, I would ask you to spend some time surrounded by the "left-brain" crowd, who have a disciplined, structured approach to their endeavors that could rub off on you in propitious ways.
I'd encourage you to pursue a double major (or at least minor) in a field entirely unlike your own. In a world of flux, you don't need to spread wide and thin; you would gain more inventive insight through a certain mastery of at least two unrelated realms of knowledge.
I'd ask you to attend at least a dozen special events a year in which we feature both ancient and contemporary arts and humanities, to illuminate the most timeless human values. Those timeless values spur dialogues among future philosophers, pharmacists, social workers and scientists - and all of them go away changed.
I'd ask you to perform some original research or works of creativity. That isn't simply to pad your resume, but to help you understand that you are a contributing part of a nation that is the world leader precisely because of its creativity and innovation.
I'd push you to spend a semester or longer abroad, not basking in some favorite vacation destination, but studying in a rising economy -- one that may challenge you culturally yet which will impact your future life and career prospects whether you wish it to or not.
And I would expect you to build lifelong, intense bonds of community with your fellow students and your faculty mentors and your school football team and your favorite causes - because the sorts of affiliations that you create between the ages of 17 and 22 are the template for the manner of community that you will have during your entire life. Life is all about being a part of something bigger than yourself, and a great alumni network is one of the most powerful - and supportive - examples of this.
As a result, I believe you would be as ready as possible for a world of change -a mature adult able to live in a society whose culture, commerce and demography will resemble neither today's world nor our best predictions. You will be better prepared for jobs that do not exist today, ready to capitalize on new possibilities - possibilities that are being created, in all humility, at America's universities.
By skipping college, you could gain a head start on a full-time pursuit of money. By attending college, you may decide that a full-time pursuit of money is not your goal. By skipping college, you can do learning on your own terms. With a basic college education, you will have a better capacity for the sort of lifelong learning that will be your lifeline.
By pretending to have a college degree, you can get past employers' demands for a minimum credential. By attending college, you will see that college is far more than a credential -- and that the person that you can become is more meaningful than the person you may want to pretend to be.
You have been asking yourself, "How can I afford to go to college?" The only reasonable response is, "How could you afford not to?"
And don't worry. The food in dormitory cafeterias is far better than it used to be.