Picture this: You’re in your second week of your first semester of college. Things seem to be going great; your roommate isn’t crazy and your professors seem nice enough. You haven’t gotten much work yet so you don’t exist in a constant state of stress. You sit down to do your assigned reading for your PolSci101 class, an article titled Live And Learn by Louis Menand, in which he discusses three theories for why we choose to pursue higher education. It gets you thinking and you find yourself wondering… “why am I here?”
Does this scenario sound familiar? It happened to me. As I began to ponder that very question, my first instinct was a basic one, “Well, if I weren’t at college, where would I be?”
It is a common stereotype that those who don’t go to college end up flipping burgers at local fast food joints. A high school degree is simply not enough to make it in modern American society. College has become the natural and obvious path for anyone hoping to make a successful living.
“Higher education is widely regarded as the route to a better life. It is sometimes pointed out that Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were college dropouts. It is unnecessary to point out that most of us are not Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg.”
OK, fair enough, I’m at college because I want a better life. But why am I here?
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, five hundred and thirty miles away from home. Hailing from Baltimore, there were a plethora of schools I could have chosen from, ones closer to my family and at which I would’ve been eligible for in-state tuition. The University of Maryland, in particular, is very similar to Michigan in size, programs, and culture. But instead, I chose to take my talents to the Wolverine State. Why?
Was it based on prestige? Michigan is widely regarded as an outstanding and respected university. In 2014, US News & World ranked the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor as the #4 Top Public School in the United States. And their relatively low acceptance rate made my admission that much more impressive. Whenever people asked which colleges I was considering and I proudly told them Michigan, I couldn’t help but notice that they looked at me with a little more esteem than they had thirty seconds earlier. According to Menand’s first theory, this would explain my choice. The theory states that college is used as a sorting mechanism to distinguish between the more and less intelligent in society. My acceptance signified that I have what it takes to prosper at a superior institution. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love the spark in people’s eyes when I answered their question, but that was definitely not the whole reason I picked this school.
Was it because I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge? High school was educational, but it was also packed with students who were only there because they had to be. The classes I took, while sometimes interesting, were mostly just the ones that were required for graduation. At a huge university like Michigan, I have a million and one different classes offered to me. My options are virtually endless, and I am able to get a well rounded but stimulating education. It was certainly very appealing knowing that I can study whatever I want. If I believed in Menand’s second theory, which states that students go to college purely to learn, I could’ve ended my debate here. It would be nice if that was my sole motivation, but it definitely was not.
Maybe it was because I want a job after college? As a hopeful business major, Ross was definitely a lucrative feature of Michigan. The motto around campus is that once you’re in, you’re “set for life.” While that is an exaggeration, there’s definitely some truth behind it. Employers and recruiters come to Ann Arbor all the time, and being a Ross alumnus is a great way to get a job and start a career immediately after graduation. Menand’s third theory would say that this was why I chose Michigan. As he explains, “advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation.” Still, I could’ve attended any number of business schools and been given very similar opportunities.
While all of Menand’s theories factored into my decision, I still didn’t feel like any of them fully captured why I came here. His explanation was missing something. While the reputation, the education, and the opportunities are amazing, it would be naïve to call them unique. There is a social and cultural aspect to college that oftentimes gets overlooked. Menand’s second theory hints at this, he looks at college as more of a “normalization” institution, people go so that everyone is on even playing field, not because they genuinely want to be there. I came to Michigan because from the first time I visited, I knew it was the right place for me. While the school prides itself on diversity, everyone comes together over the fact that we all love the University of Michigan. From the little quirks, like the abundance of squirrels and silly superstitions, to revered traditions, and of course magical football Saturdays, there’s no place like hoMe. It’s the Michigan difference, and that is why I packed up my bags, said goodbye to everything I’ve ever known, and moved halfway across the country. That’s why I’m here.