Why University Discussions Will Always Be Emotional

  • If you've ever discussed your career and if you should consider going to college or university you will probably notice that pretty much everyone will have an opinion and pretty much they will always be a heated, emotional one. Why is this? Why is something so important and so core to everything we do in life not just in our careers a topic so heated and emotional that we should almost avoid it like a religious or political topic? Why is no one taking a cool, calculating and logical approach to what is possibly the largest single life decision that we make outside of having children?

    There are several reasons for this. Well worth considering because this effects not just how we talk about continuing education, but also how we filter what we are told about it.

    It's a big life decision. This can't be overstated. College will be, for most people, the largest investment in both time and money that they will make in their entire lives. The cost of university happens early in our adults lives making the financial impact much larger than, say, buying a house for the same base amount of money would be later in life. No decision (except like marriage and kids... and those only maybe) will have the same impact that your education decisions will have on your life.

    It happens to kids. While you might attend college as an adult, or mostly as an adult (lots of people going to college at sixteen and seventeen years old these days in the US) you will almost certainly make your decisions about it while you are legally a child and have few resources for getting a good opinion on the matter. Parents are just a random factor and rarely experts on education and are overly emotionally tied to the matter, teachers and guidance counselors are products of the education system and have huge incentives both emotionally and financially to "tow the line" and "sell" college to students with significant force. Children are pressured from all angles with propaganda techniques to make college feel like an unavoidable necessity.

    Success Means Failure Both sides see anyone having success on the other "side" as a personal failure. If you go to college and you get ahead apparently because of it then it seems like having skipped college must have left us at a lifelong disadvantage that can never be reclaimed. On the other hand, anyone managing to get a good job or having a good career without having gone to college flies in the face of claims that only with college can you get ahead. It means that those people didn't want the money or time on college, yet got the advantages. This feels not just like a personal failing, but a continuing failure - how could someone with fewer advantages be doing better?

    Everyone Has Something Riding On It It is more than just the feeling that our past decisions still haunt us. Everyone has an interest in their decision still being a good one. If you skipped college, you want everyone to see that that was a good decision and that you are just as valuable as someone that went to college. If you went to college, you have a strong interest in making sure that those that did not go to college are held back based on that decision as if they are not, your college investment is wasted and you will never be able to catch up to them. A change in public opinion will have an impact on you personally even decades after your decision has been made.

    It's Impossible to Blind Test You can never take the same person and run them through a university path and a non-university path with all other factors being equal to see how things would have effected them. So all statistics are based on large pools of anecdotal evidence. But the factors that affect career value are the same factors that primarily influence who can attend university, so there is very little ability to correlate university attendance with career outcome. Meaning... people who are likely to have good careers are also the people most likely to be able to go to university. If you can't get into university, you probably don't have a bright career ahead of you. If university is easy for you, chances are you have a decent amount of career prospects with or without university training. We have no means of creating control groups for testing. The only statistics that we have are at such an enormously high level from the department of labor that we have to extrapolate nearly everything and both sides interpret the numbers very differently.

    Our Decisions Always Appear to Correlate with Our Success If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have a degree, it will generally feel like your degree played a role in getting you your job(s). If you don't have a degree, it will appear that what you did as an alternative to getting a degree will have gotten you your job(s). In both cases, this is partially true. Having a degree or not having one will certainly influence which jobs to end up applying to, wanting, being eligible for, when you are on the market and so forth. These are things that totally change everything in your life, they affect everything. So this is essentially always true. What people are implying is that they have a job so good that they could not have gotten had they taken the other path; this of course they cannot know or even guess at. Anyone using this kind of statement to promote one approach or the other has jumped the shark. It's a self fulfilling prophecy, so to speak - people without degree will gravitate towards roles that do not give benefit to having one, people with degrees will gravitate to roles that do give preference to them. This doesn't mean that either is better or worse, more or less, common or uncommon - it is simply that the status of education is an influencer in which organizations you are most likely to find yourself whether by how they select you or how you select them. For example, tons of jobs do not require a degree, but people assume that they do and either claim that their degree made the job possible or don't apply because they believe that they are not eligible.

    If college was helpful... This problem causes huge emotional reactions. If you have two people talking, one that says that college was so easy as to be a waste of time and one that says that college was tough and taught them a lot it is very possible that both is true, but it makes the person who attended college look like they struggled with things that the other person found trivially easy. No two college experiences are the same, so this is not a good comparison to make, but we can't help but make it. Humans are emotional creatures and if one person found college to be easy, it makes everyone that found it less than easy feel inferior - and makes them look bad to hiring managers. Take this to the next step and have people who learned the same material in the same time without paying for college and it makes the college grads look even worse. And then compound that with the possibility that someone taught themselves in a fraction of the time and it is worse still. By the time that you have one person having learned the material, through self study, during their high school years and someone who paid to have someone teach them the material nearly a decade later in life and you have a sense of superiority / inferiority that is hard to overcome; an emotional panic response is nearly guaranteed.

    Of course there is another problem: there is pressure on people who attended college to want to promote their own college experience specifically and there is a risk to saying that your college didn't teach you anything. Sure, you might sound awesome that you were so advanced, but you risk that it just makes your college sound bad. Anyone who attended college has to balance these things in their "personal marketing message" to make themselves sound as attractive to hire as possible. So many people who had terrible college experiences (as to the level of their educational value) feel that they have to make it sound good so that they are more desirable to someone looking to hire them.

    If college was helpful... In the same vein, those that skipped college are often presented with tales of college being their only hope for advancement and being told that college attendance "made other people better than them" feels like they are being told that they are inferior for not having had the chance or making the decision to go to university and then to add insult to injury, are bombarded with messages telling them that they have no hope for the future and that they are lucky to be employed and should cling to anyone desperate enough to hire them. Those that did not attend university face a lifetime of people "looking down their nose" at them regardless of how smart, educated or successful they are. There is a socially-accepted discrimination against those that didn't "play by the rules" of the system.

    Almost Everyone Has Someone Tied to the System The issue goes deeper as we have emotional responses caused by the effects on our own children or on family members who are part of the system. It's rare to not have friends who are teachers, professors, lecturers, or in some way involved in the education system and have a career based around the existence of the education system.

    All of these factors come together to make for a situation where everyone is out to promote their own situation with both an emotional and a very real risk to not promoting their chosen path as leaving them at a disadvantage. Everyone, literally everyone, has something on the line and because so much is on the line and there is no ability to change the past these kinds of discussions very often trigger the amygdala for a "fight or flight" illogical response, even when there is obviously no danger. No one who has graduated high school isn't affected by this, so this is a completely universal response. Literally every adult has either attended or not attended college!