When I first arrived at the four-year university, I was shaken. I was fully prepared to be the most behind, the least experienced, and the only one to have no solid plan for my future. This was because I was both a transfer student and a literature major. I’d spent way too many years at San Joaquin Delta College—the true Stocktonian way—and I’d picked a major that causes the most cases of chronic eye-rolling in people who enjoy asking about that sort of thing.

When I finally crossed the threshold of my tiny three-person dorm room, however, I was surprised—and alarmed—to see how wrong I was.

Many of the people I met, mostly transfers, also had no plan. It was apparent that some of them had absolutely no clue what they were doing there at all, as if they’d just wandered onto campus and set up camp in an available dorm room.

It blew me away how many people had spent two-plus years killing themselves in order to get into a UC, and yet had no idea why they were doing it, other than it’s what people told them they should do. Not that anyone ever admitted that directly, but it was certainly implied:

“I don’t really know which field I want to go into.”

“Internships? For Bio? Why?”

“What’s the Career Center? We have one of those?”

“I’ll figure it out when I’m a senior.”

“I’ll figure it out after I graduate.”

“I figure I’ll live with my mom for a while.”

Jesus H. Christ. What were we doing here? To pay 40K for a glorified piece of paper? Were we here to check “go to college” off our to-do list, along with doing dishes and taking out the garbage?

As a full-time student, I didn’t have much time for contemplation of societal problems, but the situation that surrounded me was noted. Eventually, I realized that our society had sold us a story:

“There’s a door, kids, a giant door. Behind this door is success. You get to this door by going to a magical place called college…”

And if I could tell you how many times I’ve seen a young person with a bachelor’s degree working at a restaurant for tips, I would. If I had a dollar for each of them, I’d probably be able to pay off their student loans. Or probably not, because, let’s be honest, those things are astronomical.

Society sold us the dream of success, told us how we could get there, but failed to give us the key. You could even say society made sure we’d never have it.

Now, I’m no math major, so bear with me. The following equations are what appear to me to be the current state of things.

The Fallacy:

Money + Time = University

University + Time = Career

Career x Time = Success

The Reality:

Money + Time = University

University + Time = Degree + Debt

Degree + Debt + (Desperation x Job Market) = Retail Job(2)

I know the latter “reality” may not be the case for everyone, but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t been the case for enough people to be considered a problem.

Despite this unfortunate reality, the University is still hailed as the path to intelligence, success, and career security. But why is this?

Ignoring the complicated answers of “media” and “preconceptions of modern society”, one could say it’s probably because businesses and fields of all kinds accept and further advocate this idea, simply by requiring their prospective hires to have a degree. Who doesn’t want their employees to be smart? And so, the idea of intelligence has been linked with material success. And as long as the university system claims to be the path to superior intelligence, most careers will require a degree of some sort. People will continue to have to put themselves through four-plus years of college and accumulate massive student debt, even though it doesn’t guarantee them anything.

The crucial point that has not been acknowledged in most of society is this:

A degree is not going be enough.

When applying for any job, whether it’s minimum wage bussing or a high-level editorial position at a publishing house, there’s always one requirement that causes the most anxiety in applicants: experience.

College may be a step to certain kinds of success, but going to college does not guarantee that success. It is up to you, as an individual human being, to ensure your own success by seeking and exploring experience. It may seem obvious, but too many students don’t realize this until it’s too late.

“College is a hoop that they want us to jump through, just to show them we can jump.”

And it’s really not the student’s fault. You can’t blame them anymore than I can blame a latte for being terrible—it didn’t steam itself. Granted, a coffee can’t make it’s own decisions. But what I’m saying is that young people have had their capacity to make their own meaningful decisions all but carved out of them.

How, you ask? Well, for starters, we’ve been taught all our lives how to operate effectively in a rigid, time-structured, highly organized, standardized system (Common Core, SAT, General Ed., etc.). And, while the world does not operate in the same way a graded system does, we’re being told that it can—that a graded system can grant them entrance into the world, in the same way good grades can grant entrance into college—a titanic illusion, to say the least. And from what I’ve seen in my past year at a UC, students are buying it.

Equating attending college with success is a flat-out lie, unless your sole goal in life is to get a PhD and stare at the framed product until you die.

I’m sure we all know that in order to navigate through and succeed in the real, non-standardized world, you need independence, drive and creativity. As luck would have it, however, all of these qualities have been phased out of our lives by a system that rewards the exact opposite: obedience and passivity. And after rewarding children for this passivity all their lives, society then expects them to exert independence and assertiveness to secure their place in the world as adults. It’s like teaching a dog to sit and stay for sixteen years and then letting it loose and expecting it to survive in a South American jungle.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying one can’t succeed in life by going to college; there are many respectable majors from which graduates secure lucrative positions in their careers. For example, plutonium engineering: you get a bachelor’s degree in that major, and recruiters will be waiting in line at your graduation ceremony, clutching a program and salivating all over your full name on its polished pages.

However, for other majors, such as psychology, sociology, literature (any humanities major, really), and even majors like environmental science and biology, you need to have experience before you can even hope to enter into a decent career. You need to seek that experience out; no one is going to tell you exactly how to do it, and no one is going to do it for you.

Some students realize this and put in the required effort, but from what I’ve seen, most never face this reality until they try and find jobs post-graduation. Many students still prioritize the majority of their time focusing on grades. The rest of their time is spent perfecting their beer pong skills or binge watching Shameless, because they think they’ve done enough for their futures that week.

In reality, all they’ve done is propel themselves toward a degree that guarantees pretty much nothing but a shiny robe and hat. And you get the honor of buying those yourself.

It’s bullshit. Complete, and utter bullshit. But don’t take my word for it. Go to your local four-year university and take a survey—god forbid you run into any freshman straight out of high school.

But let’s be honest: I’m not done with the UC just yet. I have another five months before I step into the thralls of what they call “the real world.” How the hell would I know what it really takes to make it?

But I do know this: Attending college no longer guarantees the student anything. College is a hoop that they want us to jump through, just to show them we can jump. Aside from that, it’s an over-extended, very expensive exercise in time management.

Internships are the new college. Experience is the new college. Build up a resume before it’s absolutely necessary to have one, and when you do need one, you’ll be leagues ahead of where your peers with less foresight would be.

My frustration is not with students—it’s not even with the university system. It’s with the society that taught us how to be passive, how to receive gold stars and good grades, and then expected us to realize that we were riding a Titanic of systems: told that it couldn’t sink, but set on a course to do just that.

You don’t get grades in life after college, and life after college won’t respond to the grades you’ve gotten. You have to do more for yourself and your future, even though there’s no course list, no four-year plan, no WikiHow page that will explain exactly how to do it. The best thing student can do for themselves is to realize this, and make sure they don’t go down with the ship.

Cover photo by Allan Jackson

NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Placeholder.