Why do we go to college? Is it to learn a skill? Is to learn how to think? Is it to meet a future mate? Is it to become a well-rounded person? Get shit-faced? Or is it purely a means to an end — a place to make valuable networking connections and net higher lifetime earnings? On some level it's all that stuff, and yet most of us end up in the real world without a clue how to navigate the fresh labyrinth of expectations involved in being an adult. Looking back, it's easy to see what could've helped, if we'd only had these classes.
You Won't Be Able to Buy a Car Until You're 30 Because of a T-Shirt
This one is a big, fat, no duh, but most of us go into college ill-prepared for how an interest rate works or a minimum payment, and even less concept of how often or in what ways credit cards report to credit bureaus, or exactly how terrible it will feel to wait out seven years for a bad choice at 19, that you won't even realize has screwed you until you are 25 and trying to buy a car, or a house, or rent an apartment (the answer: it feels like burning). There's certainly more information online now than when I was in college about avoiding these pitfalls. But the basics of how banking and credit work should be a required course for everyone who steps foot in the hallowed halls of a university, ready to sign away their good name for a credit card just because it comes with a free XXL Hanes beefy T with a cat on it.
Everyone Should Know How to Throw a Punch
This! I think it should be mandatory college training to be able to defend yourself, especially at the one time in your life when excessive drinking is so often mixed with poorly reasoned arguments. I think there's no reason men and women can't be trained for the world as it is while also working to change it, and including the real-life statistics about violence and risk is not just common sense, but raises incredible awareness.
Practical Feminism for Everyday Bullshit
The naming convention here — Practical Feminism — is not meant to imply that most women's studies classes are not practical. Rather, they are academic and theoretical. It is great to be armed with theory, but it's also great to teach young women about the realities of how sexism manifests in the world and some possible defenses against it. This approach combines the stats-heavy approach of gender bias with the practical aspects of navigating it when it actually happens to you. This could include self-defense tactics, but I'm really concerned with helping women understand about things like harassment in the workplace (great opp for guest lecturers!) or the more subtle, insidious ways sexism manifests during job interviews, or when asking for raises, or announcing a pregnancy. I'd have loved to have a parade of women in a class laying it bare about how they managed sexism on the job, whether as a doctor or a barista. Another aspect of this class could look at the sorts of practical, grassroots feminist campaigns that actually changed laws: How women organized and what they accomplished.
You Have No Idea How Jobs Will Actually Be
You'd think you'd learn a lot about the job market in college, and there's certainly some discussion of it, but when I graduated with a journalism degree as a woman from a state school, no one bothered to mention that 95% of the jobs would be given to white men from better schools. That the internships would be reserved for people with impossible-for-me connections and generous financial support. Most of us are hoping we luck out in the real-world mentor department, and most of us graduate still hoping. Colleges could help prep students by explaining in very broad terms to freshman what various career paths look like by have students research their pay, employment rates, job satisfaction, salaries before ever picking a major. What are the ideal jobs for someone with your major, and what does the reality look like? For me, I ended up taking a job copy editing press releases out of college for five years, which paid well, but it's something I still consider one of the most soul-sucking enterprises of my adult life (and I've scraped the paint off a house by hand). Also, this is not about just seeing what a veterinarian does every day on the job (though that's helpful); it's about seeing the choices various successful career folks made to get where they are, one tricky job move at a time.
Office Politics: Someone Already Hates You, and You Just Started!
This could be considered part of a course on careers, but it's really its own uniquely insidious little life lesson. Because hoo-boy is it disillusioning to show up at a job, fresh out of university as an eager little meritocracy beaver, only to discover that the only meritocracy to be found is figuring which of the people your boss likes more will get the promotion. That's right: In the real world, mediocre people can be promoted often, while hard workers can be ignored or maligned just cuz. Them's the breaks, kid. Friends hire friends, bosses have irrationally reasoned favorites, and nearly every place of employment has a toxic coworker and a secret saboteur and a magical golden child (and they are often the same person! And that person is loved! Because they made a pie once!). There's no reason to incite panic and fear in fresh-faced future workers, but students a mere year or two away from seeking internships DESERVE to be taught how to enter a workplace neutrally, but armed with the knowledge that no place is ever what it seems.
Everyone is Out to Take Your Money
Could also be called: How to be an Adult. Did you know that when you have to get the gas turned on at your first place that you have to pay a deposit, but you could get out of it if you had someone cosign or if you pass a credit check? But that if you choose the credit check option, and it doesn't go through, they won't let you then have someone cosign, because you already picked your choice — and it was the wrong choice? I'm serious. Shit like this is not always obvious, and most places will let you hang yourself on the fuckery of large fees, because why should they give a shit? Not getting screwed over in the world requires a kind of constant consumer vigilance, a willingness to advocate for yourself when no one else will.
Bank accounts, savings accounts, good interest rates, starting a retirement fund — who knows how to do any of this stuff right off the bat? When does that person the insurance company sends to explain it ever actually help? But I would scrap all that knowledge if young adults were taught something even older adults still aren't sure how to do: how to buy a car without getting fucked over. Buying a car is one of the most stomach-churning displays of the dark side of power there is, and few people are prepared to do battle with these unethical henchpeeps. Training young people on the art of dealing with the fuckery of car shilling goes beyond practical training, IT IS A REVOLUTION.
Your Insurance Will Pay for Your IUD But Not the Required Pre-Insertion Pregnancy Test
Do you even know what a deductible is? Or how to manage one? Or how high yours should be? Or when to schedule certain kinds of healthcare choices so as to avoid paying your whole deductible in December only to re-up first thing in January? Do you know how to pick a health plan? Does just thinking about this make you want to die, but dying is too expensive? Exactly.
How to Red-Team Any Situation
Red-Teaming is basically shooting holes in any idea or plan to understand its weaknesses. This is a valuable skill throughout life that comes in handy constantly when deciding to take a new job, buy a house, move to a new city, trade in your car, plan a day at Disneyland. It's meant to improve any strategy by recognizing the vulnerabilities in the plan, and though most four-year-degrees teach you something about thinking critically, that's not the same thing as strategizing.
You Have No Idea How to Make a Relationship Work
I saved the best for last, because all that stuff above is super real and critical, but you may very likely spend most of your free time outside of work or on hold with your bank chilling with another human being. And most human beings are piss poor at being with other human beings. It takes real skill to make a relationship work, not just fireworks. Yes, sociology departments certainly offer classes about marriage and family, and some of them offer practical guidance on marriage readiness and how to do a budget. Post-college couples on the marriage track can read books, take quizzes online, or participate in counseling they pay for or get free through their church to gauge their readiness. But given that most people desire stable, lasting relationships at some point in their lives, and most people pursue them based on love and affection and not necessarily ability to weather storms, this sort of education should start early and be regarded as important as Western Civ.
Northwestern University has a special course offering that specifically aims to teach students how to have good relationships. In it, freshly minted adults part with the notion of soul mates, and do so by interviewing their parents about their marriage (or divorce), ask friends to help the student identify their own shortcomings and triggers, and work on projects that teach them critical cornerstones of healthy relationships, like the significance of knowing yourself to be good at marriage, accepting that some conflict in marriage is healthy and learning how to deal with it, fighting fair, and the importance of a shared worldview. Instructors told The Atlantic that they see the class as a kind of "inoculation against potential life trauma." Amen to that.
Image by Jim Cooke.