How I Aced College—and Why I Now Regret It

January 31, 2010

It has recently come to my attention that my college degree is something of a sham.

This explains a lot, actually. I spent phenomenal amounts of time during my four undergraduate years on wholly nonacademic pursuits—drinking beer, hanging out with my girlfriend, playing poker (thank God the Internet hadn't been invented yet or I'd be doing this still), watching the 11 p.m. ESPN SportsCenter, watching the 2 a.m. ESPN SportsCenter, killing time between the 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. SportsCenters, and so on.

I thought I had all this free time because I was an efficient student. It turns out that I wasn't really pursuing a four-year degree.

The trouble began years earlier, in 1985, when I was 14 and signed up to take AP European history in my sophomore year of high school. I lived in an upper-middle class suburb, one of those places where everyone's parents had college degrees and AP courses were taken as a matter of course. I crammed the weekend before the exam and got a 3 on the scale of 1 to 5, the equivalent of a C.

AP American history came the next year, then a full AP course load when I was a senior. Some courses, like biology, were pretty challenging. The AP language exam, by contrast, involved simply coming into school for three hours on a Saturday morning and writing some essays. I ended up getting a 3 or better on six AP tests. In return, when I matriculated at the State University of New York at Binghamton in the fall of 1988, I was awarded four credits per AP course, giving me 24 of the 126 credits I needed to graduate. I was nearly one-fifth finished before I even began.

Deciding how to pick up the 102 remaining credits wasn't easy—or it was too easy, depending on how you look at it. I was handed a catalog filled with gnomic course descriptions and shuttled into a gym along with thousands of other students at 15-minute intervals. I wanted to take art history because I had a vague sense that it was the kind of course freshmen took. But that course was full. I took history of architecture instead because it seemed similar, it was available, and the line was short.

Six of my credits could be earned in phys-ed courses. So I took lifeguarding for three credits, which was good for a summer job. A one-credit "Advanced Basketball" class involved little basketball instruction, but it was a great way to get access to scarce court space for five-on-five full-court games in the middle of the day. "Weight Training" did the same for the weight room, and "Intro to Karate" filled out the slate.

Binghamton had a science distribution requirement, but you were allowed to take some courses pass/fail. I signed up for planetary astronomy, in a classic big lecture hall where the professor, a man of considerable girth, would stand in the well of the room and play the role of the sun. By the end of the semester, I calculated that I had to answer 20 percent of the final-exam questions correctly to pass the course. Since the exam was multiple choice, with only four possible answers to each question, that wasn't much of a challenge. I also took Drawing I that semester because I was told there would be nude models. (There were, but not the kind I had hoped for.)

That left me with me with 88 actual college credits to earn. Except, not really. Late last year, I was reliably informed that Binghamton, unique among the scores of individual SUNY campuses, awards four credits for classes that require only three faculty-contact hours per week. The origins of that sweet, state-approved deal for faculty members are shrouded in the mists of time, dating back half a century. When asked about it, a university spokesperson told me that "Binghamton faculty well understand what student work is required to satisfy a four-credit designation." She didn't explain how the policy is enforced, or how it could be, given the autonomy that faculty members enjoy in defining course content.

I also talked to the provost, who insisted that Binghamton's four credits are more substantive than, say, the State University of New York at Stony Brook's three. But there are no external studies or standards to verify that. Speaking as someone whose housemate once entered slacker Valhalla by skipping the entire months of October and November while still earning 16 credits for a full four-course semester, I am, to say the least, unconvinced.

Discounting 88 by 25 percent leaves me with 66 legit credits to my name. It turns out that I have an associate degree. Who knew? Fortunately for me, not the graduate schools I applied to after leaving Binghamton or the employers who have subsequently given me jobs. I'm trusting everyone to be cool about this and judge me on my work experience. Otherwise I'll end up like the lawyer in the new NBC sitcom Community who had to enroll in the local community college after his degree from "Colombia University" was exposed.

At least I have some disciplinary training, however—a full slate of political-science courses, all taken in an actual university, for grades. Right? Well, sort of. I took some really good poli-sci classes at Binghamton, including one on game theory from a professor who deftly explained why China would surely become America's biggest international rival by the early 21st century. (That was not at all obvious in 1989.) I went on to grad school in public policy mostly because the man who taught my senior seminar in American politics took a few minutes after class one day to encourage me to do so. He was the only professor who had noticed me, so off I went.

But the poli-sci department didn't exactly enforce a rigorous, coherent curriculum. You had to take political philosophy, for example, but you could take it at any point during your undergraduate career. I waited until my final semester, when, despite a carefully planned strategy of non-course-taking, I still needed eight credits to finish. I signed up for "Gender, Policy, and Law" because I figured there would be a lot of women in the class. (There were, but not the kind I had hoped for.) It also met in the middle of the afternoon on Tuesdays, perfect for a lifestyle centered on four-day weekends and the 2 a.m. broadcast of ESPN SportsCenter.

And I took that pesky philosophy course, where I read The Republic, On Liberty, and a number of other great books that colleges have traditionally required students to read in their first semester, not the last, in that they pretty much lay the groundwork for everything else.

Who's to blame for this? First and foremost, I am. I was an adult at the time, technically, and I could have chosen to work much harder. Plenty of other students did, and do. As time goes by, my squandered undergraduate education stands as one of my bigger life regrets. The more the demands of career and family build, the more wistful I become when I look at the pile of unread volumes on my nightstand and linger in the philosophy and literature sections of my favorite bookstore—knowing with more certainty each year that you can read only so much in life, and that some of my chances to experience great artistic and intellectual beauty are simply gone and won't return.

At the same time, this kind of wisdom tends to accumulate with age and experience, things I had in short supply when I pulled up in front of my freshman dorm two months shy of my 18th birthday, stereo system and Pink Floyd posters in hand. That's why colleges are run by people who are more than technically adults.

An institution that routinely describes itself as "the best public university in the Northeast" shouldn't hand out four credits for a 10th-grade C. It should aspire to be more than just a knowledge vending machine of courses to be chosen at semi-random with little in the way of guidance or forethought. It should look for opportunities to teach undergraduates more than its peers, not less—indeed, that's what phrases like "best public university" ought to mean. It should have done so 18 years ago, and it should do that today. All the policies I encountered—four credits for a 3 on an AP test or three hours of instruction, credit for gym, credit for pass/fail—are still in place. And while I'm picking on my alma mater because I was there, I'm sure that a great many other colleges and universities are guilty of similar conduct.

I have little to complain about in the grand scheme of things. I had the opportunity to spend four years learning; most people never get that chance. And although I wasted most of it, things worked out well for me anyway, as they tend to in a society that replicates privilege in an ever-more-efficient way.

But I'm also sure that callowness and youth will continue to go hand in hand, and that multitudes of students in college today need their institutions to care enough about their education to ask more from them than they ask of themselves. Some of life's hard lessons are better left unlearned.

Kevin Carey is the policy director of Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.