Is College Worth It? What to Consider When Making Your Decision

It’s rare that we answer questions that others ask us with empathy – considering their needs, their motivations and their fears. We often answer from our own perspective and in a knowledge economy the last thing anyone really needs is one more opinion. 

It seems as if everyone has an opinion on the value of college. I think about this question often because I’m often asked by so many as to whether I think it is worth it. I struggle to answer because there really isn’t a day that goes by where I am not so incredibly grateful for my undergraduate and graduate experience at UC Irvine and my now doctoral experience at the University of Southern California. UC Irvine just underwent an entire rebrand. As I was reading about it I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude, not just my experience but for how they were redesigning the experience for today’s students. Money magazine has named UCI No. 1 on its annual list of the nation’s “Best Colleges,” making it the first public university to achieve that recognition.

This post is the first in a series of three that I’ll be sharing this Thanksgiving week. As I thought about what I was grateful I realized not a day goes by where I don’t think I’m so grateful for my experience at UC Irvine. So I’ll be sharing:

I Took NO Standardized Tests 

Yes! It is completely possible to go all the way from a bachelors to a doctorate degree without taking a standardized test. In fact I didn’t even finish high school. I was born in London and moved to the United States when I was 10. It was the most awful transition of my life and my education was completely disrupted. I went from loving school to hating it overnight. I was incredibly strong in math and english and science and when I came here everything was so drastically different that not only did I lose interest, I lost my expertise.

As someone who grew up wanting to be a video game designer, the lack of skills in math meant I definitely wouldn’t be getting that computer science degree. I remember the exact moment I decided enough was enough. I was sitting in an AP/IB U.S. History class listening to an old man at the podium read out of a book. The same thing he had done day in and day out. I found out you could take a high school exit exam so I signed up, passed it and headed to Orange Coast, a community college in Costa Mesa. 

Finding My Passion and Purpose at Orange Coast College

After registration was complete I eagerly flipped through the course catalogue the same way you would your favorite magazine, circling all these courses I wanted to take. I would spend hours doing this. The most important thing I had been given back was choice. That catalogue of courses ignited my curiosity, my love for learning and in two years I would make up for the past seven years. I took everything from theater arts to website development to graphic design to public speaking and apparently a ton of social science classes. One of the reasons I can confidently dabble in different areas is because of the variety of things I was exposed to during this time. HTML doesn’t scare me, designing graphics doesn’t scare me, public speaking doesn’t scare me and the list goes on. 

3 Serendipitous Moments

In my last year at OCC there were three serendipitous moments that would coincide to put me on a path that back then I had no idea aligned to my passion and purpose. 

Moment One – The Social Science Honor Society

One day I got a letter telling me I had been selected for the social science honor society, I thought it was a mistake until they told me how many classes I had taken and how I scored really well in all of them. Awesome! I graciously accepted and moved on thinking nothing more of it at the time.

Moment 2 – Working with High School Students

I was taking an introduction to education course that same semester where we had to do fieldwork. I was in an elementary school setting and was having a great time. I was also working for EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs and Services) I was assigned two high schools and I would meet with seniors to discuss college options. Many of them were not aware of their financial aid options or they thought their legal status would be a barrier. EOPS helps solve for both of those. I just fell in love with working with these students. Helping them uncover new opportunities, helping them identify their strengths and navigating through options they didn’t even know were available to them was one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire career.

Moment Three – The College Fair

All of these moments would come together during college fair week and this is where I would find UC Irvine. There was a table for social science and since I had just been told this is something I really excel in I went over to chat with them. I discovered that you could get a teaching credential in this subject and teach high school students. Icing on the cake – before graduating I could turn in a portfolio to waive the standardized tests you need to enter graduate school to get your teaching credential. In my head I was thinking I love social science,  I love working with high school students and I hate standardized tests – win win win! Irony – I would go to teach at high school the very subject that made me leave.

Now that I had all the details down for what I was going to do after OCC, I signed up for TAP. TAP is a transfer agreement program. If you check all the boxes you pretty much get admission. And with that I was off to UC Irvine. 

What Should You Consider?

I want to pause here and recap some of the underlying themes that are important to think about and look for in others when making your decision

Learn to be a problem solver.

Marie Forleo has a book, “Everything is Figureoutable,” and she’s right. The only problem is there really is no class for this and if you want to learn you’ll have to seek out people, embrace risks and be comfortable with failure because you can’t solve for the unknown, live life on your own terms and not expect there to be any roadblocks along the way.

In January 2020 I’m launching a podcast, “Sprint to Success with Design Thinking.” Design Thinking is a framework that helps you develop the mindset and skillset you need to uncover opportunities and embrace challenges. This podcast is an extension of my dissertation work because let’s be real more people will listen to a podcast than they will ever read a 180 page paper. I’m so looking forward to sharing conversations with professors and practitioners who are studying and living this framework, helping people become more creative and innovative in their personal and professional lives.

Be open to possibilities. 

If I had stayed in a situation where I was unhappy just because it is what I thought I was supposed to do I would not be where I am today. You can head to my LinkedIn profile to see where I am and more of what I have done along the way, but ultimately you’ll have to decide the interesting challenges you want to work on who you want to work on them with. Seth Godin calls this being a Linchpin. A linchpin is someone who is indispensable to those around them, people or organizations because of their ability to identify gaps, solve for them and uncover opportunities.

Don’t Dismiss Community College as an Option

If it was up to me I would turn the community college experience into the high school experience. Seriously why are we not given more course catalogs with extensive choices in high school? Times have drastically changed since our industrial model of education was designed and we need to provide avenues for young people to explore their interests and experiment with different courses. And if you definitely don’t want this option, check out your local community college during the summer, winter break or see if there are evening options that match your schedule. I promise you’ll benefit much more from exploring different courses than you will any tutoring class (p.s. I’m not recommending you take traditional courses, seek out interests). This will also give you an opportunity to see if this challenges what you may have thought.

Reflect on What Brings You Joy

I didn’t spend time connecting the different courses I was taking. I had no idea I had such a passion for the social sciences. I had really seen most of them as independent subject areas and it never occurred to me this could be a degree. If OCC had not sent me that letter, I perhaps would not have been as reflective going forward. Keep a journal, do video stories, create instagram posts, do whatever it is you do to reflect to notice patterns between what you are doing and what you are enjoying and what you are not enjoying. I talk more in this video about why it is essential for high school and college students to build a personal brand.

Why Now Is the Time to Create Your Personal Brand

We no longer live in a world where you have to wait a few months before graduation to head to a job board and apply to what’s there. We live in a world where you can backwards map your goals. You can begin with what makes you happy – the type of weather you like, the cities you enjoy, the ideas that excite you and the people who you want to be around. All of those can be strategically mapped out during the course of your academic journey to prime you for the work it is you want to do and the life you want to live. 

No One Person’s Story is the Same

What worked for me may not work for you. But here is the gold that you want to extract. As you collect answers to your question look for themes, look for common language, identify what people found brought happiness and then see how that would work for you. One of the best ways you’ll be more reflective about your journey is if you begin to share it. Today there are so many platforms where you can share your story, your work and your interests. Choose one that works for you. This is the ultimate networking strategy of our time and it is the only way you will learn what exists in a world beyond the one you see around you. If someone had asked me as an undergraduate what career opportunities I could explore I with one hundred percent certainty would not have said the last three jobs I have had. You’ll often hear that there are jobs that will be created over the next decade and beyond that don’t exist yet and as an undergraduate student who will most likely be taking on some debt you want to make sure your investment pays off in the short and long term.

Credit: Growth Tribe

Sometimes I feel like my journey is just getting started. Tomorrow I’ll share my experience after community college and why I’m so grateful for my time at UC Irvine. Do you have a college experience to share? I’d love to hear it. And of course if you have any questions, feel free to DM me or leave a comment below. 

I’m Sabba.

I believe that the future should be designed. Not left to chance.

Over the past decade, using design thinking practices I've helped schools and businesses create a culture of innovation where everyone is empowered to move from idea to impact, to address complex challenges and discover opportunities. 

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