College is a good return on investment because it forces you to learn the habits necessary to become an autodidact

College gets a bad rap from my circles of friends and the people I interact with online. Viewing through my different lenses: my economic lens says: “Colleges are institutions that create debt and turn you into a corporate consumer” (which could be good depending on your motives). My productive lens says, “all the skills I apply to my job, hobby, and business I learned on my own. College didn’t teach me those skills.” My conservative value lens says: “Colleges promote liberal politics and force that into the curriculum.” My sexual lens says, “College promotes sexual exploration which leads to the degeneracy of the soul.” Maybe that’s more of my conservative value lens. The lenses overlap.

All of these arguments have merit to them. There’s a strong case that colleges have become politicized and don’t teach practical skills and leave the skill-less graduates in debt that they are unprepared to pay off.

However, there is one skill that colleges still teach in 2018 that is more important now that at any time in history – how to learn. To learn on your own is to be an autodidact. When you can teach yourself any skill, you can, in time, do any job that is given to you. You may face a learning curve and be unproductive initially, but in time you will become more productive for your company and for all the goals that you apply yourself to.

Without going to college and facing the structure those institutions have in place, it would be hard to learn that. It’s hard to pick up how to learn from books or from talking to others. People can communicate the importance of learning. Books and Google can contain all the information required to master any field. But it’s still college that gives a structured approach to learning.

Every college curriculum starts with the 100-level classes that provide a high-level understanding of the material. These familiarize students with the authors and experts in the field and give students an understanding of why the material is important.

The 200 and 300-level courses go into the details of what is important. Students memorize information and learn details that will make them conversational on the subjects in any environment – a job interview, a bar conversation, or a final exam paper. We take tests and write papers to ensure we understand the material. We take labs to see apply what we’re learning in real-world situations.

College curriculum dives deeper until you are in the 400-level courses that get into the expertise of the niches within the field of study. At this point a student is expected to be conversational in not only the why and the what, but also the how to apply the information in the world in order to bring that expertise to the world to hopefully make the world a better place. We take more tests, write more papers, and (hopefully) write a thesis that gives us a chance to structure our thoughts and prove expertise in our field.

This is how we learn skills and information. Even a skill like driving is picked up by having a why (need to get somewhere), learning the what (laws, rules of the road), and the how (how the car works, what the pedals do).

Driving and other “essentials” are picked up by applying this process intuitively. Driving has a tried-and-true method of teaching. It involved classroom instruction, behind-the-wheel driving, practice hours and tests. The structure is very similar to the typical college curriculum described above. College courses are another example of well-defined material. The course education is approved by a committee which means there’s some level of standardization of the material.

Learning skills and information becomes more difficult when there is more ambiguity involved. When a job opens up and there isn’t a formal training for that, or if there is a new technology that must be learned, there often lack the structured education of a college course. It still requires the same process to learn the skill, but many people won’t be disciplined to follow through with the why, the what, and the how.

College makes all these activities – the introduction, the details, and the proven expertise – a requirement. We fail if we don’t do these things.

Even in the least academic fields, take sociological gender studies as an example, we need to go through the rigmarole of tests and papers from 100 to 400-level classes. We become an expert in something – even if it has no application in the workforce, and diminishing credibility in academia. By doing this, we learn something.

Without following this structure, we risk missing something. We risk diving into the details of how to do something without understanding the high-level understanding that would relate our expertise to the world. Or, we risk learning the whats or the whys without learning how to apply it to the real world – like memorizing facts from a book or Wikipedia page.

Without understanding all of this – the why, the what, and the how, we fail to understand information in a way to apply it and make sense of it to others. The information is not useful to the rest of the world, even if we do learn a couple things that we can apply in a game of bar trivia.

Without going to college, we risk never going through this structured approach to mastering a subject. Without that, it is hard to understand the time and discipline it takes to truly master a subject. Learning on the job is hard. It’s much harder when we don’t apply that structured approach to learn a subject in its entirety – a structure college gives us.

Even the gender studies expert, with no real-life skills and decreasing credibility as an academic field, can apply the process of learning to any skill they seek to learn. And that’s why it’s important to be an autodidact, and that’s why college is valuable.

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