College experience vs. academics: why are we here?

New York State resident students entering as freshmen this academic year at Oswego State are paying $3,353 in tuition and an additional $8,897 for room and board. Compared to other schools outside the SUNY system and even within the SUNY system, Oswego State’s cost of attendance is relatively low. So what are we paying for? And what should we seek to gain from a possible total of $49,000 for a four-year education?

A popular approach to college is that people learn the most from experiences outside the classroom. Specifically, people experience benefits that correlate with expansion of their social atmosphere (a sophisticated way of saying going to lots of parties), involvement in extra-curricular activities, development of communication skills, improvement of time management skills and so on. In this sense, college is actually a place to learn about oneself.

While I do not necessarily adhere to this view, I understand it and appreciate it. What I don’t understand and appreciate is attending college solely for the social scene (a sophisticated way of saying the mass consumption of alcohol and complete freedom to do idiotic things you can’t get away with at home or in the "real world"). As the cliché goes, "that’s one expensive social life."

I feel that the strong emphasis on the college experience is somewhat ignorant in that it does not have much of a tangible value to one’s vocational progress. No matter if you are applying to graduate school or applying for a job directly after graduation, the entirety of your four, maybe five, years at Oswego State will be reduced to a Bachelor’s Degree in X. This narrow label cannot possibly tell admissions offices or employers that your college experience has allowed for your personal maturation and therefore made you a better candidate for a job. Undoubtedly, there are some lazy and incompetent people who crawl their way through college without learning much of anything.

Employers want to know that you have the specialized skills needed to do a job and do a job well. What would give employers this impression? Maybe next to or below that Bachelor’s of X on your resume, you can put "summa cum laude" or President’s List. These are the kinds of things that will catch the attention of employers. Some of the most cynical, but true, advice I have received is: "Get good grades. Your degree is simply a number, your GPA." With graduate school competition heightening each year as the economy continues to struggle, your academic performance takes on more and more weight.

A part of the college-experience-supporter ideology I agree with is the stress on involvement in extra-curricular activities and organizations. In communicating to an employer that you have the needed specialized skills, organizational involvement and appropriate internships are key contributing factors. Ideally, these organizations or internships should somehow relate to or be in the field you wish to one day be a part of.

It appears that one cannot simply focus on or put their effort into either the college experience or academics. Rather, both are necessary in a successful life after graduation. But to directly answer the central question of this article (why are we here?), it is to learn how to survive and thrive in our vocational and personal lives. Therefore, a careful, personalized combination of the college experience and academics should be the focus of our undergraduate work.