Is College the Real World?

May 16, 2012

The stereotypical college experience is usually depicted as an extended adolescence, complete with social and financial irresponsibility, misconceptions about life and a freedom from real responsibility. While it's certainly possible to squander one's postsecondary education in this way, there are plenty of students who avoid these foibles and conduct themselves responsibly. Is it really fair to say that college isn't the real world?

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By Sarah Wright

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The College Fantasy

One only needs to peruse the wide selection of television and film focusing on college and university life to find proof that in our culture, postsecondary education is seen as more than just another phase of school. It has a mythic status as a rite of passage that's about much more than going to class. And for pretty much any college student, this is true. Personal changes, including increasing maturity and viewpoint shifting as a result of expanding horizons, are the norm for college students.

It's not the case, though, that college is just one big party for every student. Certainly, it's possible to go to a less competitive school and select an easy major. And though pretty much anyone will complain about homework and finals, some students manage to coast through school without really applying themselves. Though not everyone has the same experience of college, the party machine seems to be the archetypal college experience as depicted in our culture - more keg stands and pizza than books and papers. It's the college fantasy.

The College Reality

Any realistic evaluation of the average college experience will temper this image. Students who completely shirk all responsibility are likely to fail their classes and potentially get kicked out of school. Regardless of the amount of partying a college kid does, they have to do some studying in order to maintain their student status. And while it's true that not everyone is a perfect, studious angel during their college years, there are plenty of people who realize that postsecondary education is an important opportunity to lay a foundation for future success.

There are good students at every college. Whether or not these kids know how to balance their work with fun, they know what it takes to excel. Being thorough in class, staying on top of assignments and acing tests isn't going to be an effortless pursuit. Plenty of students comport themselves with a mature responsibility during all four years of college. Is it really accurate to say that this is an experience that isn't common outside of the confines of academia as well?

The Real World?

In an opinion piece for Inside Higher Ed, Justin D. Martin tells of his frustration with the idea that college is a magical time of slacking and extended youth. As an undergraduate and graduate student, he says, he worked hard and dealt with practical concerns like housing and finances. What isn't 'real' about that experience? After all, aren't those types of responsibilities hallmarks of adulthood?

Most people continue to grow and change after college, and this might cause some of us to look back on that experience as a last hurrah of childhood. But it isn't necessarily the case that life after college has to be bland and tedious. The experience of balancing work and play during college is something that many graduates fail to do - sometimes miserably. It's possible that your college experience was actually just as 'real' as your current life, but perhaps with better work/life balance. Something to keep in mind the next time you hear someone teasing a recent college grad about 'entering the real world.'

A new initiative to help adults earn postsecondary degrees might contribute to a shifting perspective of college students.

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