02/28/2012 10:45 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2012

In Defense of College

There's a growing chorus of voices telling students that college may not be the best use of their time post-high school. The national UnCollege movement has argued that college does a poor job or preparing students for real-world jobs. Their founder, Dale Stephens, was recently featured on the New York Times higher education blog, where he argued that people seeking a meaningful education would often do better immersing themselves in the so-called "real world." The numbers appear to be on his side: barely half of recent college grads are working jobs that require degrees, and the ever-growing college debt burden certainly asks us to consider if we could find a better use for $28,500 (the average annual tuition at a private four-year school, according to the College Board).

I agree with Mr. Stephens in many regards. Many students could make better use of four years of their life, and plenty of people go to college for reasons that are more social than academic. On the UnCollege website, there's a list of beliefs supporting the movement's idea that you don't need to go to college to be successful. Some of them make sense to me, but I found one somewhat curious: you don't need to decide what to do with your life at age 18. I believe that's absolutely true, and in my mind, it's one of the best reasons to go to college.

I'm a junior at Whitman College, a private liberal arts school in eastern Washington. When I came to Whitman, I had a vague notion that I wanted to do something related to international development or saving the world, so I decided to major in politics and environmental studies. During orientation week, I went to the activities fair, figuring I should join a club of some kind to get to know people outside of my dorm. Wandering the folding white tables, I saw the table for our school newspaper, the Pioneer. I had no journalism experience, but I liked to read magazines and the staff looked nice. I applied to be a news reporter, assuming I'd at least learn something even if I decided this wasn't my thing.

Now, three years later, I've been selected as next year's editor-in-chief. I've met many of my best friends through the paper, written stories about undocumented students and eating disorders on campus and learned more about InDesign, AP Style and writing a solid lede than I ever thought I'd know. I'm pretty set on trying to make a living as a journalist, and I'm heading to Ecuador this summer to write a story about locals struggling against a copper mine in the middle of a cloud forest. None of that would have happened if I hadn't gone to college.

The merits of college are often debated based on what occurs in the classroom. I've learned valuable skills in class, but I think it's a mistake to assume that class time is the only place where education occurs on a college campus. One of the coolest things about college is the fact that you're surrounded with other intelligent, hard-working people who have vastly different skills and interests from you. I've learned just as much from late-night conversations with my peers over a pint of ice cream as I have from lectures and discussion sections.

College, to me, is a place for exploration, a place to decide which of the many things that exist in the world are interesting to you. There are many ways to expose yourself to different fields and professions--jobs, internships, volunteering--but the concentration of opportunities available on a college campus makes it ideally suited to exploration of this type. In a single week at Whitman, I can teach a rock climbing class, volunteer at the local women's shelter, go to a board meeting for a food co-op that's just getting started, debate the merits of park-based conservation in my political ecology class and write an article about a neighboring high school receiving an award for having a high graduation rate. It's eclectic mixes like that they make college truly worthwhile.

The UnCollege crowd is spot-on with many of their critiques of college and traditional education. You don't need to go to college to be successful. If you know what you want to do with your life and don't need a degree to do it, more power to you. But if you're trying to figure yourself out and haven't quite found that niche, college still offers opportunities that you won't find in the "real world."