Is college the place for students to "find themselves?"

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

A few weeks ago I was driving to a wedding when my phone died. Suddenly I had no map to show me the way. I was running late and I wasted precious time making wrong turns as I guessed my way to my destination. Did I mention that I was also running out of gas? I didn't see it at the time, but looking back now I see that my experience was very similar to the situation I see most college-bound students facing. They are headed to college without a map, wasting precious time and money and often running out of gas on the way. But is that just a necessary part of the journey?

Is college a necessary time of exploring, introspection and missteps on a student’s unfolding journey to clarity?

It is an often expressed opinion that college is a time for students to “find themselves” and gain clarity on their life goals and purpose. While I agree that college is a transformative time in the life of a student, I would challenge the notion that college is the best place to figure everything out; especially when it comes to career direction.

It is no secret that most students (75% in fact) change their college major at least once -- and sometimes more. A lesser known fact is that these changes are costing parents and students tens of thousands of dollars as additional classes are needed to meet the requirements of a new major. Add to this the fact that the “average” college graduation time is 6 years (not 4) and you have a very expensive experiment.

Is it wise to allow your student to attend college in an effort to “figure out what they want to do with their life?” If you have unlimited financial resources and don’t mind investing in this expensive process, great! But, if you are like most families, you don’t have an extra $100,000 laying around. In that case, some wise guidance could go a long way in helping your student succeed.

If students invest their time and energy in thinking about what is important to them and doing some solid research, they can set smarter goals that will allow them to graduate on time and save thousands. When I went to college in 1986 my parents paid $1,200 a year for my tuition, today (at the same school) tuition and fees are $12,000 a year. In 1986 one could afford to "find themselves" in college through trial and error, but with the outrageous price of a degree in 2017, that is a luxury that most can't afford.

Tom Sugar, president of Complete College America advises that colleges (and I would argue high schools) should give more guidance and structure to students as they choose their college major and chart a path to the career they want to pursue.

“We think what they want is flexibility, but actually what they need is structure. We think we’re doing them a favor by letting them explore without guidance, but we’re really steering them away from success.”

What can be done in high school to help students chart a more direct course toward their future career?

I don’t believe that a thousand detours are necessary on a student's path to a fulfillng career. Yes, there may be midcourse corrections but that is no excuse not to have a plan to begin with. No one starts a cross country drive by just heading in a general east or west direction. Well... someone might, but they have more time and money than I do! You pull out Google Maps and chart a course. You may take a few side roads on the way, but for the most part you follow the shortest and most economical route to reach your destination.

Students need to have a career plan based on exploration and informed choice; a road map of sorts, to help them navigate the critical choices they will be making as they head toward college.