As almost all high school students do, I scoured the country to find the college that would be the optimal fit for my personal desires. As I embarked on my quest, I tried to cover the entirety of the spectrum of choices from small private universities to larger public universities, such as the University of Wisconsin. I obviously expected to find differences between all the schools I visited. While one campus boasted you could walk from one end of campus to the other in a mere 15 minutes, the opposite side enticed me with promises of Division I football games. Yet upon looking deeper, past the promises and talking points that the perky tour guides gave to lure me in, I noticed a large ideological difference between the smaller and larger schools.
These schools ultimately differed in how they viewed the purpose of education. Generally speaking, when dealing with smaller schools, I was presented with statistics and facts about how high their four-year graduation rate was and how fast a degree from their university could have me placed in a job. I was told by one admissions counselor for a small, private school that, “Colleges aren’t in the business of enlightening minds anymore – the point of college is to find you a job,” and when inquiring about the school’s master’s program I was told, “We don’t really do graduate programs. That’s at least two fewer years you’re out in the job market making money.”
I was told the greatest advantage a college could give me was maximizing my time in my major, without the distraction and time commitment of extraneous classes that weren’t designed to make me workforce-ready in four years. The more of these speedy graduation statistics I heard, the more I realized I wanted my college to feel like something other than a factory churning out graduates for the job market to consume. Larger schools were where I found refuge.
For example, in Madison, I was told that experimentation was not only allowed, but encouraged. After my previous college visits, I was borderline shocked to learn of the Cross-College Advising Service, which caters to UW students who have yet to select a definitive major. Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration dedicated a whole half-hour session to how different interest fields and even majors could and should be tried on for size in an almost liberal arts-like fashion. I was given the impression that I was not only here to earn a degree, but also to gain an education that extended beyond the immediate scope of my selected major. This extended education would make me more than workforce ready — it would make me a more informed student and gradually, a better person.
On a practical level, the university’s stance on experimentation and exploration helps them appeal to a wider variety of students that are more than capable, but still undecided about their major. Statistics from the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience show 33 percent of incoming freshmen at UW are undecided students assigned to CCAS. These students, fully capable yet still undecided, may have looked elsewhere for their degrees if UW did not maintain its exploration-based ideology.
Experimentation may also be more profitable than some students realize. In April 2013, the American Association of Colleges and Universities conducted a survey asking employers what attributes would get a graduate hired. The results indicated that 93 percent of employers surveyed agreed, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
According to the 2012 U.S. News and World Report, 54 percent of UW students will graduate in four years, meaning around half of students will have to take at least one more semester to complete necessary coursework. Some may look down on this, saying UW is not doing enough to ensure that its students graduate in a timely fashion, or that it’s a scam to trick students into paying more tuition money. However, it more likely reflects the fact that UW has allowed students to explore options, learn about themselves, maybe change majors along the way and ultimately let them decide if they are ready before transitioning into the workforce or graduate school. This is something to be applauded rather than criticized. While selecting a university is certainly a personal choice, I advocate that regardless of personal preferences about size or category, all students can benefit from educational exploration.
Madeline Sweitzer ([email protected]) is a freshman majoring in political science and journalism.