LearnWhat You Really Learn in College

Photo Credit: www.gotcredit.com

Wade Christensen
writes on July 13, 2015

According to the College Board, the average budget for a student at a four-year public university is $23,410 per year. That’s a total budget of $93,640 over four years (with no consideration for annual increases). Most of these costs are typically funded by loans and grants. When people say that you are mortgaging your future to attend a university, they aren’t far off.

But you have to go to college to get a good job, right? Not exactly. There are a lot of alternatives to college these days, and online tech schools and coding bootcamps are just a few of them. However, equating an online tech school with a university education is a faulty comparison. What you get from a college education is vast and not often in a course syllabus. Fortunately, you don’t have to go to school to get the experience. You just need to be active, hardworking, and curious.

What do I know?

I felt pinned coming out of high school. I grew up in a small town in Oregon where aspiration and expectations are lower than the high school’s performance rating (in the bottom 5%). I knew two things: I had to leave, and I had to get an education. Making a decent living without a college degree or vocational training is a thing of the past. I put serious consideration into the military, but I ultimately decided to attend the University of Oregon.

As a first generation college student (my father never graduated high school), I struggled to navigate the system. Financial aid was, and still appears to be, a nightmare. Though I had a 4.0 GPA coming out of high school, I was admitted to the UO with conditions, because the quality of education at my high school was insufficient for full admittance. I would be lying if I said my first year of college was a joy.

Fortunately, I learned work ethic the hard way long before college. With a lot of gritting and grinding, I graduated from the UO with Latin Honors (useless in the real world).

After traversing the financial crash for a bit, I ended up working for the University’s College of Education for four years. Working for a university allowed me to see the institution from another side. I was in the fortunate position to see the process for granting degrees, hiring new professors, applying for grants, and the many other things that keep a research university running.

After struggling through, learning at, and working for a major university, I had time to think a lot about what made going to college worth it and what was a total waste of money and time.


Photo credit: www.gotcredit.com

What you get from college that vocational schools and online courses don’t offer (yet)

With universities becoming unaffordable and good alternatives growing all the time, why is college attendance projected to keep climbing? A big part of this trend is easy access to credit in the form of both public and private student loans. However, student loans are a topic for another day. The truth about a college education is that it still operates as an incredible networking opportunity. It also gives you social skills that follow you your entire life.

Networking/Building Relationships

Many companies, organizations, and products are developed, funded, and marketed by teams of people who met in college. It is unlikely that you will have the opportunity to meet a larger group of people all in the same stage of life as you do in college. Universities are a unique place in that they collect thousands of (primarily) young people in one place. Further, these people have one job: BEER PONG! I’m kidding. Your job in college is to expand your mind. You take the time to critically explore ideas before you have a million other things tugging at your time.

To put it shortly, you spend approximately four years learning how to socialize. When people say that soft skills are key to employment, this is what they are talking about. Can you have an informed discussion with people—can you maintain that discussion when you disagree with someone? Can you balance being on time each day with competing responsibilities and no parents to get you out of bed?


Somewhat related to networking and relationships is the ability to communicate ideas. I once had a professor tell us that college taught us how to write. He said (I’m paraphrasing) that we will remember only a fraction of the facts, figures, and names in our course material. We would, more importantly, take away the ability to communicate ourselves in writing. He was right. Sure, I remember a good amount of the information I learned in my courses, but I exercise my ability to communicate effectively in writing every day.

In your professional life, you will send e-mails—constantly. You will draft memos. You will write articles. You might even write a few blog posts. Lamentably, some of the writing you do will be in the services of giving bad news. Often, you will be charged with explaining a difficult concept to hundreds of colleagues, and it is essential they understand you.

How do we prove our education in a university? We have written exams, reports, and dissertations. The constant research, summarization, insight, and written production required in a university education will aid you through your entire life. I believe my father would say the one thing he struggles with most as a result of not graduating high school is his inability to write well.

Critical Thinking Skills

Perhaps the most important thing you get from a college education is the ability to think critically. If your professors are worth even a fraction of that tuition money, they will push you outside of your comfort zone. You will be forced to challenge your own beliefs. You will have to laboriously dig for information about all aspects of an issue.

While at the UO, our big project for admittance to the School of Journalism and Communication was affectionately known as Info-Hell. Info-Hell was a course aimed at teaching us to research an idea completely and still hit a deadline. The average paper came in at over 100 pages (that seemed like a lot in 10 weeks). For each of our primary sources (no fewer than 35) we had to research that source (who owned the publication, what were the author’s political beliefs, etc.).

The point was not to torture us. We learned the hard way that you can not accept anything at face value. Always question what you’ve been told, who the source is, and a source’s motivations. This is the kind of thing that makes you a better citizen. Hopefully you vote, and when you do, you have the ability to understand when you’re being lied to (lies are nonpartisan, by the way).

Your ability to evaluate the merit of an idea is drastically affected by a university education.


Photo Credit: Sean MacEntee

How do you get these skills outside of a university?

Now, we’ve all met someone with a university degree who demonstrates none of the abilities mentioned earlier. We’ve also met people with no university education who blow us all away with their intellect and creativity. However, when you think about skipping college for a tech school, be aware that you should be looking outside of your tech training to become a well-rounded thinker. How do you do that?

Networking/Building Relationships

The Internet is providing so much more than access to information. Believe it or not, social networks can be used for more than liking things and trolling people. I know; you have to trust me on this. Seriously though, look to things like Meetup, Facebook events, and LinkedIn groups. Join some social clubs in your area. Perhaps most importantly, make an effort to reach out to people doing things you’ve never thought about. Reach out to people with entirely different backgrounds from your own. There’s a reason you have to take all those courses that have nothing to do with your major. Push yourself. Building relationships with other curious minds is not impossible outside of college.


To be a decent writer it helps to be an avid reader. A reading habit will go a long way toward making you a critical thinker as well. Pick up a few writing instruction books. I liked A Writer’s Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work, by Jack Hart.

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to work with a good editor. Look for a local writing workshop or writers’ group (another opportunity to network, by the way). One of my writing professors made us all peer-review each other’s pieces. This helped us both write better and provide valuable critique.

Look for a writing group comprised of authors who write different types of material, and you will learn a lot just by reading their pieces. Again, force yourself to do the things a professor would assign you.

Critical Thinking Skills

The trick to critical thinking is simple—question everything. It’s easy to be cautious of ideas with which you disagree. Challenge yourself to be even more cautious of the ideas that reinforce your own beliefs. The Internet is full of information, but it’s not all credible—often it’s not credible at all (we’re all aware of clickbait). Think about who owns what you’re reading and watching. Who has a stake in you believing what you’re reading. Nothing is created without a motivation. Whether that motivation is benevolent or manipulative, try to find it.

Get some books. A strength of most books is that they go through editors. Some editors are assigned just to fact checking. Some lies make it through for sure, but there are at least some checks-and-balances in place. I love the freedom of the Internet and the democratization of information. However, there is nothing to stop people from writing anything online—this is less true for books.

Text books aren’t special—they will sell them to anyone. One thing I like to do is dig up college syllabi and look up the reading list for a course. I just buy the books and get most of the $1,800 course for $150 in books.

Travel. If you can afford it, travel as much as you can. A dangerous idea is that people who are different are wrong, stupid, crazy, etc. Travel will not only expand your relationships, it will also teach you to evaluate an idea or belief with cultural nuance and perspective. Often, different is just that: different.

Final Thoughts

The truth is that nothing is perfect. You can go to college and learn very little. You may go to school and find some information useless. You should always be supplementing what you learn with more learning. There is no finish line for education. Becoming a well-rounded thoughtful individual is a marathon that doesn’t end—there is always more to learn.

As with anything, question what I’m telling you now. What I’ve written here is based on my experiences. This post is my opinion . . . and, yes, I have a motivation for writing this: I want to help you. Logically, I also think that helping you might include using Treehouse. Motivations don’t invalidate information, but they are important when considering how we perceive information.

Lastly, I would say that a young person doesn’t need to feel like a decision to go to college is final. Again, life is a marathon. Many people take a few years to work, travel, and figure out what they want to do before embarking on an educational path. Take some online courses first while the stakes are low. It’s much cheaper to figure out what you want to do when you’re not paying for credit hours. Schedule some informational interviews to help you decide. You know yourself, so do what’s right for you. Just know that a college education is not just tech skills at a high premium—it’s an education in its most holistic form.


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3 Responses to “What You Really Learn in College”

  1. Agree!
    Really nice article & inspiring. Prefer learn in Treehouse, but college is important too.. OMG 😀

  2. I’ve worked in higher education for almost two decades and totally agree! Thanks….

  3. One of the best things you can get out of a university education is the ability to teach yourself. Before becoming a web developer, I was a pastor who had spent eight years in higher education to get a master of divinity degree. Even though I work outside of the church as a web developer now, it’s the ability to self-educate that I learned while on campus allowed me to completely change careers.

    My wife is a pharmacist, but medicine changes so quickly that what she learned in class is replaced every few years as knowledge advances. If she didn’t stay on top of things, it would actually be harmful for her patients since they depend on her knowledge.

    So in a sense I don’t use my degree in my vocation, but in another sense, I use it everyday as I seek to learn and grow in what I do and as a person. I might have been able to do that outside of college, but applying what I learned there made the transiton much smoother for me.

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