My Advice to Potential Undergraduates

In the comments to the previous post, Hank asked about his “(future) undergrad degree,” so for purposes of this post I’m going to assume he’s either about to graduate high school or has just started college.  I know another commenter, Henry, actually is in undergrad.  (Ye gods, men, are you trying to get us killed?  Socrates had to drink hemlock for less than what we do here).  Perhaps there are a few more of you lurking out there, so here’s the best advice I can give you, from someone who spent a lot of time in and around higher ed but is now, praise Allah, retired:

No, it’s not “Don’t go to college.”  I know, I say that a lot, but the cold reality of the current situation is that you’ve got to have that piece of paper.  So: Go to college.  But for pete’s sake don’t pay for itand spend as little time on campus as you can.

Let’s deal with 1) first.  There are certain majors for which you must attend a brick-and-mortar four-year sleepaway camp.  Those are the Right Answer Disciplines (hereafter: RAD).  Basically, anything math-based.  Before you get into one of those, though, you must be 100% absolutely, positively, swear on your momma’s eventual grave certain that you can hack it.  Fortunately, there’s an easy three-step test:

  • Did your high school offer AP calculus?
  • If so, did you take it?
  • If so, did you ace it?

Unless you can answer “yes” to all three, you’re not ready to take the RAD plunge.  If you can’t, then go to the nearest community college and sign up for the hardest math class you qualify for.  Unless you crush that sucker like you’re Good Will Hunting, the RADs are probably not for you.  Which is bad, because Engineering and the like are a guaranteed source of unoutsourceable income, but also good, in that you’ve saved yourself a lot of time, money, and grief.  (Calc I is to education as curve balls are to baseball players — it’s what separates the talented tenth from the rest of us.  Just as there’s no shame in not being able to hit a curve ball, there’s no shame in not being able to do engineer math).

But let’s say you did crush it.  That’s not your cue to start filling out your Harvard app.  Think about it for a sec: There’s no such thing as “Harvard math.”  Places like Harvard, MIT, Georgia Tech, etc. have better labs, it’s true, but unless you know you’re going to be a research chemist or something — and if you’re wondering, you’re not — then those facilities don’t mean much.  Leaving aside the peculiarities of specialized subdisciplines within Engineering (which I’m not qualified to comment on, and again, if you have to ask they’re not for you), you can pretty much go anywhere.  Your goals are still the same, though — as little time on campus as you can, at as low a cost as possible.

Take as many classes as possible at the local juco.  Most jucos have extensive online offerings now; take those.  So long as you’re sure they transfer to the college you picked — go down to the registrar in person to make sure — you can get all the freshman-year bullshit out of the way, and usually most of the sophomore crap too, at a tiny fraction of the cost.

This is key, because as much as it pains me to say it, required frosh classes like “Western Civ I” are so bad, they’re anti-education; you’d be better off picking up any of the Penguin Classics and just reading it on the treadmill (more on the “Liberal Arts” below).  This is true everywhere, and it fact it’s worse the higher you go — the juco might actually have a nice 80 year old lady teaching English 101 who just likes Dickens and wants to share her hobby with the world, but at Harvard you’re guaranteed to get some Angry African who assigns you to find all the racism on a soup can label.

Once you’ve done all that and you’re forced to go off to “real college,” staying off campus as much as possible becomes your number one priority.  I know, I know, that sucks, because campus is where the girls are.  But that’s precisely why you need to stay away.  Have you seen college girls lately?  I have, and while I’m hard-pressed to remember what it’s like to be a young man so hormone-addled that the sight of linoleum gives you a semi, I’m still a guy — I get it.  Even the blue-haired nose-ringers look good after a few brews in low light and from a distance, because at that age pretty much anything with boobies will do.  Here’s what you need to know:

I’m sure there are non-insane college girls out there, but I’m even more sure I have no idea how to find them.  (If I did, I’d tell you, because I wouldn’t wish modern “dating” on my worst enemy).  Did you see what happened to Brett Kavanaugh?  Yeah.  Christine Blasey-Ford is a professor.  Let that sink in for a minute.  Remember it every time you’re tempted to go talk to a college girl.  That’s why staying off campus is job 1.

And that’s the best-case scenario, y’all.  Let’s say you’re not cut out for engineer math.  The good news is, you can pick up an “associate’s degree” entirely online, and an AA is generally all you need.  You can even get BAs that way now if you feel you must have one, but online degree mills like U Phoenix are surprisingly expensive.  Your local juco can probably get you an all-online AA for next to nothing.

The bad news, of course, is that you’ll have to pick a major, and they’re all pretty much worthless.  The least-worthless steer as close to the RADs as possible — Finance, I suppose, and things like that — while the most worthless have “Studies” somewhere in them.  If math isn’t your thing (I completely sympathize), your best bet is, counterintuitively, one of the “Studies.”  You won’t actually learn anything — they’re so bad, as I’ve said, they’re actually anti-education — but they’re the easiest As you’ll ever pull.  Repeat after me: “_____ is just a social construction.”

That’s it.  You’ll have to find your professor’s particular hobbyhorses — not hard, as she’ll bring them up 5,000 times per lecture — but even there you can always skate with some iteration of #OrangeManBad.  Skim the syllabus for buzzwords, cruise by the Postmodern Essay Generator, do a quick find-and-replace with your class-specific buzzwords, and there you go.

“But,” I hear you asking, “what if I actually want to learn something like History, or English Lit?”  That’s the best part — it’s totally free.  The Internet has you covered.  So long as the writer doesn’t mention having any degrees, you’re golden.  I recommend the Z Man’s “essential knowledge” series as a good starting point, but however you look at it, if it’s in plain English and makes sense, it’s far better than anything you would’ve gotten at even the “best” college.

Just remember the golden rule: Stay off campus as much as possible, while spending as little as possible.

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12 thoughts on “My Advice to Potential Undergraduates

  1. WOPR

    We had the oldest child unit taking intro-college classes, one a semester, starting her sophomore year of HS. Even the intro college courses are pathetically easy nowadays. A lot of parents were, “We’re worried about the environment for them and that they’ll hear things they shouldn’t.” Our reply was that it was better while they were home, only taking one class, and we could deprogram anything. After that, we had the kid take as many of of the AP tests as possible. Between what she took and the AP tests, it was short one class of two semesters.

    I would add that medical is going to require college. Like you said, business, such as finance, will require the sheepskin. But, college is not the place any longer to learn the humanities.

    The irony is that the old days of flunking 40% of the freshman class was the winnowing that made it possible for an English major to get a business job after college. It did demonstrate some level of at least persistence.

  2. Severian Post author

    “Weed-out classes” were the best thing about college. As you say, even English majors had to gut their way through college algebra, and engineers had to suffer through Latin. These days, only the RADs have weed-out classes, and if you fail them you just change your major (lots of Business majors started out in Engineering or Comp Sci).

    So many high schools offer some kind of college prep, it’s an absolute shame that more parents don’t do it. Personally, I loved teaching the high school kids when I taught juco, because I could tell them some harsh truths: “Look, if you find MY class tough, then ‘real’ college is going to kill you. The actual work isn’t anything you can’t handle, but you’ve never had to really knuckle down and study before. Better to practice it now, than when it’s costing you $10K a semester.”

  3. Henry

    I have to apologize because I am both Henry and Hank, while fiddling around with the settings on my profile I changed the name that appears on posts, sorry. But I do have good news to share, while I did not take calculus in high school, I am taking it this semester and it is very easy and I have certain benefits which make the tuition cost of getting my undergraduate degree, at the specific university I attend, zero. I hate general education classes and everyday I naively daydream about life after university. Thanks for the advice!

  4. MBlanc46

    It’s rather a shame that calculus is the intro course in math departments. I get the need for weed-out courses (it would have taken a huge incentive to get me anywhere near an organic chemistry course) and physics and engineering students need calc and not much else at that stage, but it puts off people who might have actual ability. It’s all “to solve this sort of problem use this trick” and few freshmen have “this sort of problem”. Better to begin with something very axiomatic such as set theory or modern algebra to give beginners an idea what real mathematics is.

  5. Pickle Rick

    My favorite was our gunnery instructor at artillery school. He brought out his seven year old daughter to show us how to read range and deflection on a manual firing chart… my mathematics education was learning how to make shells hit targets 18.6 mile as away. Nine weeks later, I was in the fleet doing it for real, but I really only got good after a year.

    1. Severian Post author

      I’m pretty mathematically inept, but I would’ve had a LOT more incentive to get better if I got to blow things up at the end.

      1. Pickle Rick

        Well, that is a bonus. That and getting smacked with a big aluminum Range Deflection Protractor (aka The Klingon Battle Axe) in class to encourage your boot ass to “gimme the goddamn data, asshole!”
        works wonders on your concentration too.

        Good times.

  6. seanmarcus

    As a former professor who left academia because of the fascist-styled administration, I was well tuned to the academic experience and where things were headed on campuses across the nation. I left teaching in 2003. It has gotten far worse than even I imagined at the time.

    I counseled my son continuously, no debt, do stem, or some form of stem or don’t go to college. Start a business, learn a trade. Several of my former students with the most success never made it the 4 years.

    When my son ever expressed interest in following a path against my advice, like insisting he wanted to live on campus and not at home or getting a loan and quitting his job I simply stated I would not support him in that decision at this time. Zero support of any kind. He would have to rack up the debt on his own. I would never cosign a student loan.

    I had the added benefit that my son was working, something I also insisted on, in an “everyday” man’s job and he was well aversed to doing that the rest of his life. Most students graduate these days never having held any sort of meaningful job.

    We are fortunate in that we live in Florida close to a state university and state schools are incredibly cheap for residents, tuition is about 3K a semester full load.

    He graduated with a chemical engineering degree after deciding medicine was not his thing. He took 5 years because of the major switch. That was tolerable because by the time he settled on chemE he was positive of that path.

    Between working and scholarships, he graduated with about 3K in credit card debt. He graduated from a Florida state school, and not one of the top names you know.

    He was hired before he graduated from a large oil services company downstream division starting at 7 figure compensation package. Yes, that’s right, 7 figures thanks in part to Trump policies tightening the labor market as well as exploding the oil market. He now has a home base in Texas and spends much of his time on the company dime in terrible locals like California and Hawaii.

    If you asked him today did his Dad do the right thing with strict counsel and direction in his school years he says hell yes. He is forever grateful.

    All too often parents are to blame for being whishy washy non-directive whimps. They simply go along with whatever the kid wants and often sign themselves away on the dotted line. I had classrooms FILLED with them.

    No is a word lost in the vernacular of Americans, but it can often solve many if not all problems before they become problems.

    College can be done very cheap, it can be done right, but children, and that is what they still are, need a strict hand of guidance especially when the risk indebting themselves to the tune of 100k or more for a degree in humanities or even most of the business degrees, all worthless.

    Just say no.

    1. Severian Post author

      There it is. Glad you got out when you did — I was dumb, and stayed in longer (of course, I was never a *real* academic, so I didn’t have to put with much faculty-lounge bullshit). It fascinates me how sane and reasonable 2003 seems from the vantage point of 2019. Back then, I thought surely we couldn’t get more insane than the Bush Derangement Syndrome gripping every American campus. Ooof. They ought to take my History degree back just for that.

  7. Dividualist

    I think you are oversimplifying it, saying it is calculus or bullshit studies. I went to business/finance school, suffered through calculus like a pig on ice, failing the exam basically as many times as it was allowed to fail and not get kicked out – but it was nowhere as tough as what engineers got – taught myself programming, write business software that, at least on the technical side, seriously easy. It is pretty interesting how managers aren’t even interested in statistics, which is a whole lot easier than calculus, just plugging the numbers into an equation. Yet, nobody asks what is the correlation or regression of our sales with something. You give them the sales numbers this month, last month, last year this month and they draw their own conclusions. Outsourcing? My boss does not even allow home office over one day per week. “We need that human contact.” But perhaps more rationally, you can outsource things that you can define very precisely in advance. This sort of stuff is many incremental improvements. Nobody says agile or suchlike, it is just a learning process for the business.

    1. Severian Post author

      I’m exaggerating a bit for effect, yes. But it’s necessary, because the worst possible thing you could ever do is rack up a bunch of student loan debt while ending up with a Useless Studies degree. There’s a reason nobody hears the phrase “opportunity cost” in high school.

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