Before Community College Is Free, One Idea About College Must Change

I really wanted to like President Obama's plan for everyone receiving two free years of community college.

Higher education has basically become essential for anyone who wants to move up in America, especially from harder upbringings to the middle class. Plus, college, like high school, exposes students to great professional and personal experiences that positively shape the rest of their lives.

However, as much as I wanted to like it, I couldn't.

High college costs aren't the biggest issue facing students--it's the idea that going to college automatically leads to a successful career, regardless of your major or how you use your time. President Obama's proposed plan does nothing to address this oft-overlooked yet fatal belief.

The Wrong Idea About College

Every day on my campus I see indifference to the rough time students will face getting their career started, especially in today's communications industry. This stems from seeing college as another required phase in life where it's always the right decision regardless of what happens after. That the four-year degree is a magic ticket into a comfortable, high-paying job, or at least something better than if they didn't attend college.

This isn't true at all. College is an extremely serious investment that's taken surprisingly casually, when we need to act very carefully to make it worth it. Something a student invests tens of thousands of dollars into can easily become a flat-out bad decision that will haunt them forever, regardless of how much the people around them pressured them into it.

This perception of college needs to change, otherwise we'll just get more students graduating with little to show for it, especially in the way of a paycheck or long-term career. Students will leave without knowing the skills their industries need the most, work experience outside the classroom, or any number of things employers want grads to know but rarely find.

This isn't helped when so many college curricula, including my own, do almost nothing to try and change this. I've had plenty of required classes in areas like humanities and social sciences, and while I took a lot away from these classes, they did zero for my actual career. This bothers me because they make up the bulk of my classes every semester, which adds up over four years. You'd be amazed how many interviewers were impressed by me knowing basic Excel, yet how few required classes even mention spreadsheets.

If--and, hopefully, when--universal community college is available, this idea will be a thing of the past. Millennials must see college as a series of tools and opportunities to build their success, not an institution for a diploma that's a magic ticket into their career. Only then will having the government invest in students going to college pay off instead of adding to this problem.

How Could the President's College Plan Start Fixing This?

One Syracuse professor said it best to me: College offers students great potential, but often its priorities are skewed. It aims to make all students into scholars, when few students want to be. These types of classes are best condensed into a much smaller part of curricula, while most teach millennials what will get them hired but employers rarely find on their resumes.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3sd-RQnNqU0&w=560&h=315]

How should all this factor into the president's proposed community college plan?

  • The government should only be willing to spend more on tuition for students studying in fields with greater labor demands. Then they're more likely to be employed after graduation.
  • Make students build outside experience in internships, volunteer work, and maybe apprenticeships, and help students find these opportunities outside of class.
  • Teach students overlooked core skills, such as following industry trends, thinking critically, and maintaining a professional network. (Few professors really taught me this, but the ones that did are who I'll really have to thank for my first job.)

I know there will be plenty of people, including other college students, who disagree. There's even part of myself that loathes thinking about college in such a business-like way when I've had plenty of transformative, enlightening, and just enjoyable experiences in it that weren't related to my career at all. I know that's also a large part of college education.

But the other part of me knows that with college becoming so expensive yet commonplace, its a mindset millennials will need to accept, even if they don't want to--for the sake of their careers and long-term happiness.

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Before Community College Is Free, One Idea About College Must Change

Max Antonucci

Max Antonucci is a senior at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications, studying Online Journalism and Information Technology. His career focuses include web design and development, social media, content marketing, and anything related to working and thinking digitally. At school he's the Lead Tech and Innovation Producer at The Newshouse and helping launch a local startup news site. He can turn almost any topic into a political or philosophical discussion, enjoys drawing the occasional cartoon, and somehow has gone his whole college life without drinking coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @DigitalMaxToday.

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