College Advice from a University Instructor

I’ve seen a spate of articles pop up recently discouraging people from going to college in fall 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic situation. They’re mostly from self-mythologizing startup douches and/or carpetbaggers trying to sell alternative education products, so there isn’t much of value in them and I won’t be linking.

However, talking about them has me refining and recording the advice I give to prospective college students.
So in that interest, a list of my usual advice. Which is very, very explicitly prefaced with the usual “Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer” disclaimer.

  • Have a program in mind before you start, but don’t get married to it. That means, specifically, don’t make it your identity. Know what you want to do, where you want to do it, and most importantly why you want to do it.
  • Start with a plan to get through into a good situation, or don’t start and do something else for a while, dithering in college is expensive.
  • That said you might find a better school, you might find a discipline you prefer, and you might find out you don’t actually like what you planned. Those are generally things to be changed now not regretted later.
  • The benefit of big-name schools for undergraduates is small, the difference between a little college and a university is larger. Unless you have an excellent scholarship and/or specific, credible career plans they don’t support well, you probably want your in-state big public school.
  • Do you have gen-eds left? Will you be paying to take them? If you’re still in high school and can, mine AP credit like its the only reason you’re there, especially for credits NOT specific to your intended program of study (they’re more widely accepted and won’t mess you up on program progression). If you’re out of high school, or at a high school that doesn’t offer a good spectrum of APs, take them at a community college, preferably one with a good transfer agreement with wherever you plan to finish. It’ll be much cheaper, and probably better than the mass-production service classes at a university anyway.
  • Tragically related: I’m quite convinced that currently at my institution, the community-college calculus kids are, on average, more mathematically literate than the ones who did the sequence at the university. Many students aren’t going to make it for one reason or another, the universities know it, and they’re set up to extract two plus years of tuition, room, and board from those students while they repeatedly fail basic courses. Basic courses that have been cost optimized for the university with gigantic sections taught from materials outsourced to ed-tech carpetbaggers, supervised by disinterested graduate students with alarming English skills.
  • School-provided room and board most places is absurd, if you’re not covered by a scholarship, and can swing living with family or other extreme low-cost options, do that. If not, rent something modest and convenient to your school to keep it cheap and avoid a time and money expensive commute. Only share living arrangements if you have reliable people who have similar needs.
  • Find above-the-minimum ways to engage with content in your field. Your out-of-class expertise (hobby projects, clubs, undergraduate research, internships, etc.) is what differentiates you.
  • Do plan to spend a lot of time on campus. Find a study area where people in your program congregate. Arrange to regularly eat on (or near) campus with interesting university people. Schedule your life so you can participate in campus clubs that interest you. The environment (full of knowledgeable people, interesting people, people with coincident interests, and focus on learning and improvement) is a big part of what a university experience offers.
  • You’re not really in an engineering program until you clear the math prereqs and the fundamental introductory courses in your discipline. You’re not really pre-med until you pass organic chemistry. There is work to be done to improve yourself, that’s why you’re in college.
  • Have Fun! Try things! College is the perfect time for that. Just try not to pick up any crippling addictions whose opportunity cost is “everything else.”
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