The inauthentic college experience

A friend of mine recently brought up the point that it’s unfair to suspend/expel students for throwing house parties. This is because college administrators have made it pretty clear that they likewise don’t care if faculty/staff die–UT-Austin, anyone?–and that they’re ultimately responsible for luring 18-to-25-year-olds back to campus for the “real” college experience.

Piggybacking off that, it got me thinking. These kids have been sent the message their whole lives that there’s something the matter with people like me.

You see, I attended alternative high school. I didn’t go to prom. I didn’t go to homecoming. I never attended a sporting event, aside from hacky-sack at the smoker’s sidewalk. I never took senior pictures. I was completely ostracized from the authentic high school and, later, college experience. I started community college at 16 and dropped out by 18. I slept on the shores of Lake Mendota and took photographs of life in Madison, capturing memories I both cherish and abhor in my later adulthood. I never lived in a dorm. I had one “campus tour”, for a college I ultimately didn’t attend due to my pregnancy at 20. My first two-year degrees were entirely online, because I was nursing an infant and, later, touring with bands.

My fondest high school memories are of punk shows, riding my bike, and long nights dumpster diving along the isthmus. My best college memories are writing papers in tour vans and falling asleep with my daughter after long days studying. I don’t feel like I have missed out on anything, at all.

High schools and colleges both have absolutely sold this idyllic life script as requisite for an authentic and complete adulthood: go to prom, graduate, go stay in a dorm, long nights cramming at the library, then graduate and find a good job and have 2.3 kids and a dog. What message does that send? “Once you get married and have kids, your entire life becomes unenchanting and grey?” It’s through selling this life script that they’re able to siphon thousands and thousands of dollars out of families, essentially paying more for their kids to “be” normal and less for their education.

Spoiler alert: there’s nothing wrong with foregoing the overpriced, crowded dorm, in favor of off-campus living and a community college transfer degree. The only reason our high schools sell it so hard is to make their graduation metrics look better, and four-years sell it hard because, well, they’re getting paid to.

Both as a web programmer and as a sociologist, I received excellent training at community college, both in terms of quality and flexibility. Having never known a dorm room or a meal card, I was able to quickly adapt to paying bills and living like an adult in my later adolescence. Yet the message we receive growing up, especially those of us who were groomed for the “college experience” by schools from a young age, is that there is something missing from or the matter with someone who foregoes these experiences.

There’s not. And now administrators are risking all of our lives over them.

If you’re reading this in high school or college, and you’re upset about “missing out” on the “real” high school or college experience, remember this: you’re missing out on absolutely nothing. You’ve been given the opportunity to see that you’ve been lied to. This crisis has liberated you from the pressures of conformity.

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