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The UnCollege Blog

Is It Enough to Just Be A Student Anymore?

When thinking about attending college, there are some topics that are commonly explored – is higher education worth it anymore? How do you choose a major? You find tips on not only how to nail the coveted admissions letter, but also how to get the most bang for your buck and ensure you’re a candidate for scholarships as well. But as the college conversation continues to expand, with more students than ever questioning the value of college—only 38% of college graduates think their educations were worth the cost—there’s a different question we should ask:

Is it enough to just be a good student in today’s world?

Research shows students are placing an emphasis on their career before they even make it to college, and a study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce found that over the past twenty-five years, 70% of college students work while attending school. In a survey of hiring managers, they found recent grads lack soft skills like communication, critical thinking, leadership, ownership, and teamwork, and problem-solving, which have gone astray in a generation of students that are used to achieving via the outline of a syllabus. Two-thirds of graduates struggle to “launch” themselves after college and find meaningful work, and now, sought-after colleges like Yale are more interested in “engaged citizenship and intellectual excitement” than just the average benchmarks of academic success, like grades and GPAs.

All these facts mean something – colleges and the real world are unimpressed with the former pinnacle of education: Being a good student.

In generations prior, good grades guaranteed you a spot in a good college, and that good college degree meant you usually wound up in the career you had studied. A few years later, there was added focus on extracurriculars for college applicants, to show they had skills outside academics, and involvement for college students, who supplemented their resumes with clubs they had joined, academic honors they had received, and leadership positions they held. Today’s students are facing something different entirely, because the cornerstones of previous years aren’t cutting it. Colleges claim they are looking for more—and the real world certainly demands more—than just being a “good” student, especially when “good” is usually defined by classroom performance, not a possession of the soft skills and tangible skills that are needed to thrive.

Jeffrey Selingo wrote for the Harvard Business Review that:

“for decades, the college degree had been the strongest signal of job readiness. Today there is a lot of noise interfering with that signal and employers question whether a traditional undergraduate education arms students with the soft skills needed in the workplace—problem solving, critical thinking, communications, and working in teams.” 

That noise is what we have to pay attention to, not just once students are ready to complete college, but before they even get there.

Colleges are demanding a ridiculous amount from students: They want the old stand-bys, like meticulous GPAs and flawless grades, activities that span sports, the arts, and everything in between, volunteering, a killer personal essay, great references, and of course, the hallmark of the application process, excellent test scores. Then, they flip the narrative—they don’t just want great students, they want great thinkers, innovators, and trailblazers. The problem? The emphasis on pristine academics—that fit nicely into the cookie-cutter of the Common App—leaves little time for trailblazing, which often doesn’t fit as neatly on applications anyway.

So, colleges have said that it is isn’t enough just to be a good student anymore. And it isn’t, but for a different reason. The world doesn’t need more good students. It needs leaders, thinkers, and doers.

Think about it: Students spend their entire lives being told how to think, and there’s some value in that. Every student should have literacy skills like reading and writing, and all should be able to at least the basic math required to exist.  But the trap is that we let students stay traditional students for too long. Our collegiate system, and the focus on being accepted into it, puts pressure on the wrong areas, meaning that students are burnt out, frustrated, and, at worst, totally disenchanted with learning. If you felt like that, would you be eager for and open to new experiences, fresh ideas, and doing a little more than required? Probably not.

Research shows that taking time to learn and explore outside school actually makes you a better student, and teachers claim “a culture of testing, they say, is inhibiting the development of “life skills.” That’s just it: Being a student only lasts for a short period of life, in the grand scheme of things, but life skills sustain you regardless of whether you’re a student or not. They’re helpful in the classroom and beyond it. It is also what can set students apart.

How can we get students more engaged in what they’re learning—and thus, enable them to move beyond the “student” label? Looking at it on a larger scale, our educational infrastructure would need to change to include classes about financial literacy, tangible skill development (even how to write a resume would be helpful), and launching practical learning of all forms. For college students, we need to encourage them to get out and get their hands dirty, and create space for them to do so: Instead of postponing progress until they’ve graduated and attempted to find a “dream job,” they need to learn as they go, and put that learning into practice.

What inspires you? What do you want to change? Where have you had the most impact? What problem do you want to solve? These are far from idealistic questions—they are the stepping stones for young people to move away from student-hood into creative thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. When you develop skills based around them, you open doors that a college degree won’t. You set yourself up for the chance to be more competitive in your field than someone who can fill in blanks and get “right” answers, which changes the definition of “student” from a passive listener to an active doer, who doesn’t wait for college, or until college ends, to start making their dent in the world. It isn’t enough to be a student in modern society now, and we should be glad--it encourages a bigger push toward learning in all ways, rather than a few, and gets students invested in learning for the sake of creating a life, rather than simply checking the box of a degree.

Read more: 10 Reasons Not to Go to College (At Least Not Yet)