College Degrees: Time is of the Essence

By Frank Vahid, January 2003, derived from my talks over the past few years to Engineering students

Work Hard, Reap the Rewards

So, you've chosen to go to UCR and become an Engineer or Computer Scientist. Great choice! You may end up with an exciting career, building cool things that may make life better for people, and earning some good money doing it -- our students have gone to the top companies and graduate schools in the country. Or, you may drop out of engineering, and maybe even drop out of college.

"WHOA, what's that about, Prof. Vahid!? I thought this was going to be a nice inspiring little essay?"

Here's the thing. Most UCR students (and perhaps parents) apparently don't understand how challenging obtaining a college degree can be, especially in CS/Engineering and at UCR. Fact is, a significant percentage of students who start college never finish (of 53 million Americans who have taken some college, only 28 million actually have bachelor's degrees). And more than half of the students nationwide who start off in engineering do NOT, I repeat, do NOT, get an engineering degree. More than half of our CS/Eng. majors drop out of the major.

I've found the basic problem to be a lack of understanding of the following: If you want to reap the rewards of a good college degree, you have to work hard to earn that degree. In other words:

Seems simple. Amazing how few students seem to understand this. I think they just don't realize how high the standards are at UCR. Those standards won't be compromised -- we have a committment to employers, graduate schools, and UCR's own reputation, to turn out quality students with a demonstrated competence.

Allocate the Time

In my experience (at UCR since 1994), the biggest mistake our students make, as a result of underestimating the difficulty of getting a degree at UCR, is they don't allocate enough time to their studies. Let me say that again. The biggest mistake our students make is:

Obtaining an engineering degree requires somewhere between 45 to 60 hours per week, spent on things like reading, programming/designing, and doing homeworks. Even outside of engineering or hard sciences, students should plan to spend a good 40 hours a week -- the time they don't spend with coursework should be spent on other things that will help the student choose and prepare for their career -- additional reading, campus organizations, volunteering, looking for internship opportunities, and working in relevant part-time jobs. College is a time to plan and prepare for your career.

I've found many students let several other far less important things take up too much of their time. By far the most common one is a JOB. While a 10 hr/week job may be healthy, more than that detracts from study time. And commuting to that job is even more unhealthy, costing a lot of money, creating stress, and increasing the chances of accidents (don't ignore this reality). Now is NOT the time in life to be trying to earn a little money. Now is the time to be training yourself such that later you'll earn a LOT of money (among other benefits of such training). Think about it. A job you get while in college typically pays you maybe $6,000 to $15,000 during the academic year. Sounds like a lot, right? But a good degree may land you a career job paying $60,000 per year, maybe much more -- amounting to about 1 million dollars over your first 10-15 years. But that part-time job during college increases the odds that you WON'T get that good degree. Were the few thousand dollars really worth it? Now is the time to find other ways to support yourself -- help from parents, relatives, financial aid, student loans, modest living, etc. Finding a job while in college should be seen as a way to broaden your experience, not earn money. (If for some reason you absolutely positively must work full time, then don't try to go to college full time too -- take a reduced load).

Parents are partly to blame for this misplaced time committment. Many see the age of 18 as the time for their kids to become more self-sufficient. But college is the time when kids need their parents' support THE MOST! Now is NOT the time to have them start paying for rent, a car, food, etc. Now is the time for parents to be paying, and if they can't pay, to borrow. There are only two things that I believe we should take out loans for if we don't already have the savings: buying a house, and paying for our kids' college. Most people would never consider trying to live in a house that they could only pay for up front -- they instead spread the cost over the next 30 years. The same should apply to a college education -- unless you want the educational-equivalent of living in a shack. College is an investment, not a regular expense like food or a car payment. In today's society, asking your kid to pay his way through college is like kicking a young bird out of the nest before his wings are fully developed. Even if your kid marries, why should that mean you stop helping them out? And with reasonably priced high quality public universities, the financial burden is really not all that big, in the big scheme of things.

Universities are also partly to blame for the misplaced time committment. Freshman year is typically much easier than subsequent years, leading students to believe that their bad study habits will work just fine in college. Engineering courses build on each other, like building a tower -- doing poorly creates a very weak foundation, like a house built of cards. Junior year hits, and the student starts failing upper division courses. By now, it's usually too late.

American high schools share some of the blame too. Let's face it -- you can do well in high school here with hardly any effort. Our high schools rank among the worst in the modern world, yet our universities are the best. Those high school study habits won't work here. Students who went to high school in other countries typically excel here; one commented to me how she was quite surprised how poor American college student study habits were: "Do they expect to sleep in lecture, skim over the chapter, rush through homeworks, and then actually learn something?"

American busy-bee culture is also partly to blame. People simply try to pack too much in to their lives. If you try to carry too many dishes, you'll likely drop them all. You can't do well in college, and work 20-30 hours a week, and have an outrageously active social life, and do whatever else you're trying to pack in. My advice is to pick a couple of things and do them well -- both while in college, and afterwards.

Other major consumers of students' time include video games, Internet surfing, TV watching, and hanging out with friends. The key is to be disciplined about their use. Students need to allocate their 45-60 hours per week FIRST, and then do those other things in their spare time. Use those other things, sparingly, as rewards after a long study period (like at the end of the week). You'll enjoy them more, and you won't have that underlying guilty feeling. Alcohol and other powerful drugs also tend to eat into students' time -- my opinion is that it is best to avoid those things entirely, as their cons outweigh any pros. Making friends and spending time with them are important parts of college -- but remember, your real friends will want you to achieve your goals -- if not, they may just be hoping you'll fail too so they don't feel so bad (misery loves company).

I've found students often sabotage their own college studies by committing time to other tasks, as a way of having an excuse for failure. "Ya, I flunked out of engineering, but hey, I was working 30 hours a week." Or, they won't even consider certain degrees and careers for fear of failing. C'mon -- aim high, and if you don't achieve your goal, so what? At least you gave it an honest shot. You'll never know what you can achieve unless you really try. Throw this fear of failure thing out the door -- if you aren't failing at something once in a while, you aren't aiming high enough.

Students do understand the need for hard work, but in other contexts. For example, most students realize that athletes must train everyday for long hours to play on a college or professional team. Everyone knows that an athlete who tells the coach "I'm gonna rush through the drills and then skip out of practice early" is never going to make it. But students rush through their lab assignments and skip out of lab early all the time! As another example, students understand that a NASA astronaut in training must be serious and disciplined, training regularly and for full days, for several years. You don't picture them goofing off, sleeping through training, holding another job, staying up late every night playing video games, do you? Get serious about your training. Aim for A's, not C's. Courses build on one another; if you don't master the early ones, the later ones will be even more difficult. It's like stacking blocks -- build a good base, so you have a stable foundation later.

You've Set a Great Goal -- Achieve It

In closing, don't believe that starting college means you'll finish it. You have to make college your top priority, your more than full-time job -- you need to allocate TIME. Don't forget -- most who start in engineering don't finish in engineering, and many people never finish college -- why are you different from those people? Parents, if you see your kids making decisions indicating that college studies are not top priority, do something! If you have to help pay for college, fine -- you'll have decades to recover any expenses. Don't be so sure that your child will finish college, or get a good degree, just because they are enrolled!

Put first things first. The time after high-school is the time to think about, investigate, and prepare for a career in which you may spend the rest of your life. Don't let small money matters or temporary pleasures side-track you from your main goal.

Achieving your goal

Here are a few things you can do to increase your chances of obtaining that Engineering or Computer Science degree:

I wish you the best.