All That Glitters: Making Good Choices in Higher Education
I’ll tell anyone and everyone who will listen: I made a mistake when I opted to go to Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. As tempting as it is to badmouth the school, the honest truth is that PIA was not a good place for me; but it may very well be a good choice for others out there.
It’s been a little more than 10 years since I’ve earned my Associate’s degree from PIA. Going back to that time in my life, I was in a tough spot. I had always been an above- average student with a lot of promise. However, my previous choices in regards to higher education (an expensive private university, a large public university and community college) did not work out for me. I just felt the need to do something…anything with myself. My confidence was down, and I was desperate to have a degree in hand to show for all of the student loans that I had racked up.
Academically, PIA seemed to be a good choice. All of the coursework was relevant and interesting, and I had no doubts about my ability to master the material. What I completely ignored is the culture and rules of the school, as well as the professional pathway such a degree would make for me. In retrospect, that was a very expensive mistake. While I earned great grades at PIA, I dreaded going to school five days a week, all day long. I did not see myself as being on the same wavelength as my instructors or my peers. I definitely wasn’t on the same wavelength as the administration, who did little to foster a since of community or offer professional career help outside of the local region and a few favorite employers who favored PIA graduates.
When I graduated from PIA, I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. I felt like I had been released from prison. In a few months, I packed up my car and moved to South Florida; where I went to work in the computer industry…in a job that PIA did very little to prepare me for.
So where did I go wrong? Well, today, I see four major issues:
1) I was on auto-pilot, doing what I thought I should do, instead of the best thing to do. I was wrong in thinking that I had to be enrolled in a college program, any program, to be considered as being productive and living up to my potential. The truth is if you do not know why you are taking classes, college become a huge drain on your time and finances. You shouldn’t have to go through this just because you are a good student doing what is expected for you to do.
2) I was completely blind to the school culture and did not inquire about the career placement rate and the types of jobs alumni obtained. Even though I was only enrolled in PIA for 18 months, spending 6 hours a day, 5 times a week in a predominantly male environment where 80% of the students were younger than me was no fun. I had already spent time at a traditional university, and was used to far more autonomy than PIA offered. It soon felt like I was moving backwards educationally, not forward. And I had plans to move to Florida from the beginning. PIA only had limited contacts in regards to job referrals and networking down there.
3) The coursework wasn’t challenging. The academic rigor of PIA was along the lines of an advanced vocational program. I did know this going into my program. What I didn’t realize is that since the work was so easy, I grew to see it as a chore and just something to get through. I began to long for greener pastures, making me scoff and disregard whatever benefits PIA did have.
4) The degree program was too specialized. This wouldn’t have been a problem if I had the strong desire to become an avionics technician (which is what my degree prepared me for). However this wasn’t the case. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. So now I had a degree with all of this specialized knowledge that I had no real passion to pursue.
College is too expensive to not put real thought and effort into where you eventually end up enrolling. So look before you leap. Don’t take the college/school’s word for the full picture of whether or not you’ll thrive at a particular college or university. I don’t feel rushed into making a decision. Sit out a semester, or two or three. There is a good chance that the school you are interested in will still be there, waiting for you whenever you do feel ready. Of course you are free to do whatever you want ultimately. But I warn you, there is no guarantee that you won’t look back from ten years in the future and say, “Oh wow, I really wish I wouldn’t have wasted all of that money on that college!”