Till this day, I remember the first time my mom talked to my brothers and me about college. She called all four of us to the living room for another “family meeting” and entered the room herself, carrying four bulky, crimson folders.
“This is what you need to get into Harvard!” my mom said, as she passed us each a folder.
My brothers and I stared blankly—we were still in middle school. What could she possibly mean? It wasn’t until we opened the folders that we realized: she had printed out the entire Harvard admissions page.
“A little too much time on your hands, mom?” I said, flipping through the pages.
“Sure mom. That easy," my brother Juan said. He pointed at the acceptance rate, which read 6.8%.
But despite our ensuing remarks, our mother insisted. So we amused her and took the folders. But little did we know, that that day, she had planted that belief in our minds. A belief that in the coming years she would continue to nourish with the same beam of conviction.
And five years later… my brother Juan was accepted into Harvard. (And the rest of us, having been accepted into Penn, NYU, and Wake Forest, didn’t do so bad, either.)
His achievement redefined my beliefs of what I thought possible. I started wondering, Why did my mom limit her vision to college? Not to belittle my brother’s accomplishment, but success isn’t guaranteed by a diploma. Why didn’t my mom print out Steve Jobs’ Wikipedia page, instead?
Supposedly, because college is necessary. And honestly, I’m not sure if it is or isn’t—I haven’t experienced enough of the real world yet. But I’ve experienced enough of college to doubt it’s necessity. In fact, the only reason I can phantom as to why the belief has such a strong foothold, is that we’ve been tricked.
College works like one big coin trick. To make a coin disappear a magician uses pretend movements as distractions. Schools, similarly, have students moving around, from classes to meetings to parties, mimicking others. Four years later and a good sum of coins have disappeared—the price you pay for that magical diploma.
Don’t misunderstand me, I know that the benefits of college extend beyond a diploma. But other than a diploma, there’s nothing special about college that, with less debt and more hustle, you couldn’t get another way. And that’s especially true today.
Imagine where many talented and intelligent young people would be if, instead of cramming for exams and fixing their resume, they invested that effort into the real world. (There are, of course, a few outliers that already give us a hint of what’s possible.)
Now, none of this is to imply that I’m completely against college. College is the right decision for most students, myself included. I’m just against the limiting belief that college is necessary. Because it excuses us into only doing what is necessary to succeed in that bubble of existence, and fools us into thinking our future is based on the decision of some admissions officer and the GPA on a piece of paper.
As much college can help us succeed, it can also hinder us. Don’t let the college dream become an illusion. Whether the trick works or fails, the final outcome depends on you.