Would I Attend In-Person College This Fall?

If I were of college age right now would I choose to attend college this year?

Short answer: No. I’d take a year off.

Why?

Obviously there are the health risks of placing yourself in an environment with a bunch of young people known to make stupid decisions on a regular basis during the midst of a health crisis of unknown proportions. (If you doubt that young people make stupid decisions on a regular basis let me point you to pretty much any college party that involved alcohol that I’ve ever attended.)

Sure the fatality rate for younger individuals is pretty low, but the long-term health effects of getting this thing are not well known yet and some of them are not looking good at all.

(A recent study showed an incident of pretty high heart impact even for asymptomatic patients. That’s on top of all the respiratory, kidney, brain, blood clotting, general energy-level, etc. issues that have already been talked about elsewhere. And just yesterday I saw a tweet about a woman who’d had this four months ago, been released from the ICU, and then succumbed to the long-term effects months later.)

But it’s not actually the health impacts that would keep me at home. It’s how college is going to be structured this year.

At some point I may actually get around to writing a book on choosing whether to go to college and what type of college, etc. (I’ve been thinking about writing it for about three years now but just never have.) One of the key points I was going to make in that book is that the value of an elite education is only about 50% the actual education you receive.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that I was able to study the Quiche Maya language for a year and I even sort of kind of used it that one time I went to Guatemala and it’s a great party trick to be able to say “I went to market to buy a cow” in a language that has glottal stops. But, honestly, once I graduated I used maybe 10% of my class knowledge in the real world. (Have I ever used any of the calculus they required for my Econ degree? No. No, I have not.)

Completing my degrees showed that I was capable of discipline and intellectual rigor and learning and sticking to a challenging task for an extended period of time. But for my degrees (anthropology, psychology, and economics) the actual knowledge I learned was not needed for my career (securities regulation, consulting, writing).

I learned what I needed to know on the job. All my degrees did was tell my employers I’d be able to do that.

(For other degrees and careers that can work differently. This was just my experience. Even my writing training came from high school not college.)

I would say that another 25% of the value of a college degree from an elite school is in the reflected reputation of that school. People notice when someone says they went to Harvard or Princeton or Yale.

My freshman year I went to Rice University, which is an excellent school. When I told people that’s where I went they made a joke about rice being a food. When I transferred to Stanford and told people where I went to school they said, “Ooh, you must be smart.” (The only time that changed was when Chelsea Clinton was there and then they asked me if I’d ever met her.)

I got my first job out of college even though I was missing a key qualification because I’d graduated from Stanford. When I told my potential employer I’d fill in that missing accounting class they gave me the benefit of the doubt. If I’d gone to Joe Blow Community College they wouldn’t have even interviewed me with that qualification missing.

But for this conversation it’s the other 25% of the value that I think matters.

And that’s the connections you make during college with your fellow students. Those people in your classes and in your dorm and in your extracurricular activities. The ones you have a beer or a coffee with. The ones you observe and who observe you over the course of four years.

Some of it can be informal connections. You now know a person who does X and you can give them a call a few years later when you need access to someone who does X.

That happened with my MBA program. A few years after graduation someone I knew but wasn’t close friends with at school called with a consulting opportunity. They called me solely because of that school connection. Because they went looking for someone who knew X and I was part of their network.

But some of it can be much more profound. I have a number of friends who met their spouse during undergrad or grad school. Most of whom are still married to that person twenty years later.

I personally believe that someone’s choice of spouse is probably the most significant decision they will make in terms of career and wealth trajectory. Stable relationships support career progress. Unstable ones, can really set someone back. I have seen more than one career derailed by a bad divorce. And more than one divorce due to a mismatch between spouses.

I’ve also seen more than one career derailed by inappropriate behavior by someone who was single and looking in the wrong places for relationships.

College is one of the best times in your life for meeting people who are at the same level and headed in the same direction. The admissions board has pre-selected a promising pool of people for you to form both friendships and relationships with.

But given the current situation I think those kinds of informal networks will be crushed. No dropping by someone’s dorm room to hang out. No last-minute everyone pile into a car to go on a late-night adventure. No big parties to attend. (Or at least, there shouldn’t be. Not in the U.S. right now. Not unless you want to roll the dice on a double-lung transplant.)

So if it were me with a kid who was college-age right now, I’d say take the year off. Go back when you can have that full college experience. With the internet the world is full of opportunities even for someone who isn’t at college. Take some fun courses. Read books that have nothing to do with anything. Start a vlog. Start a Twitch channel. Whatever.

Pursue your passions this year, go to campus next year.

And if we’re in this same boat again next year? Well, the world will be a fundamentally different place at that point.

(Heck, I suspect that the world as Americans know it is going to be a fundamentally different place no matter what six months from now. So maybe that changes the whole calculation anyway.)