When I saw my acceptance letter from UCLA in 2004, I was overjoyed to find out that I was one of the chosen to attend an elite university, currently ranked 23rd among national universities by U.S. News. My hard work and dedication toward creating the perfect college application during my four years in high school had finally paid off.
Since UCLA has the most undergraduate applicants of any university and is revered throughout the country, I assumed that I would have access to nothing but the best professors in their fields, a student community interested in scholarship and motivated in truly helping others, and an endless amount of educational resources.
In fact, on the University’s Youtube Channel, film professor Peter Gruber describes UCLA as a magic place for public education. If that weren’t true, why would so many people want to apply?
However, after finishing my first term at UCLA, I felt dumbfounded, since the campus culture that I experienced was almost the complete opposite of my expectations.
First, many of the students didn’t take their studies seriously. Because UCLA’s environment offers so many distractions, students often decide to put academics at the end of their priority list. Friends and acquaintances of mine from high school who had studied meticulously every day to master a subject and were obsessed with being accepted into prestigious universities, ended up drifting academically at UCLA.
Most of their time was involved in playing video games, perusing Facebook or being overly involved in extracurricular activities such as intramural sports, clubs or fraternities. That is why, after the first year, a significant number of people I knew ended up failing classes or switching majors, even though those same students were at the top of their classes in high school.
While I was in high school, I sometimes felt that my fellow students were too involved in their academics. There were many students who were willing to go to school at 6:30 am to take early morning Advanced Placement classes and stay until 4:00 or 5:00 for their extracurricular activities. Feeling stressed-out was common because students would stay up late to finish their homework.
As a result of being immersed in such a stressful and competitive environment, I had idealized college as my post-high school escape that would offer freedom in learning. In the end, however, I found going from high school to college meant an abrupt shift from a strictly controlled environment to one without any direction or guidelines.
In high school, one of the reasons why I was excited about college was that I imagined that the professors would be a different league of intellectual who could generate insightful ideas and lively discussion in their classrooms. Unfortunately, after my first quarter at UCLA, I realized that my idealization of college professors came from tidbits in movies and pop culture. It had no basis in reality.
The truth is that very few of my professors took their teaching seriously. As a freshman, almost every lecture I went to seemed like a confusing and incoherent regurgitation of the textbook. Because of this, after the third or fourth week of class, many students started to skip class, including myself.
What makes big research universities such as UCLA different from your normal high school is that in UCLA there is absolutely no incentive to be a good teacher. I didn’t know this at the time, but faculty are engaged in both research and teaching, but only get promoted because of the former. It was disappointing for me to see that professors, in general, were not much engaged in their undergraduates, since that does not help their career prospects.
In fact, many times when I went to the office hours of my professors, they gave me a vibe as if helping me learn the material was some kind of a burden to them. Because of experiences like these, I couldn’t help but feel that my time and money were being wasted.
In contrast, whenever I asked for help from my high school teachers, even if they couldn’t explain or reiterate a point well, I always felt they made an effort to do so. In addition, I always appreciated the daily feedback my high school teachers would give me whereas in college, I never had any idea what I actually was supposed to learn.
As for the curriculum, I felt that almost all the classes in my major, mathematics/economics, weren’t helpful or applicable to the real world. They were too theoretical and abstract. Most of my understanding of economics applied to the real world came from reading books and articles from the Internet.
Even if the curriculum had relevant material, there would not be enough time to truly understand and internalize what was being taught since classes only last for 10 weeks. The academic environment at UCLA promotes an experience of cramming for exams and forgetting everything soon after the test. It was very common to see students put off their studies until a couple of days before a mid-term and load up on energy drinks.
Worst of all, there is almost no social support system for students. At UCLA, many students complain that they are treated like a number. That is because most professors do not get to know the names of their students, nor do students even know each other’s names.
As a result of being in this type of toxic and isolating social environment, I believe many students develop psychological and mental problems, which is why approximately one out of six students have gone to the Counseling and Psychological Services center.
For those reasons, and to my great surprise, I would have to say that the quality of education at my so-called prestigious university, UCLA, was actually lower than at my high school. For me, going to college has been the biggest farce of my life.
Sure, I earned my degree in mathematics/economics and that has very little to do with what I am currently doing, which is selling insurance and teaching Spanish through a start-up I created. The cost in time and money was extremely high compared to the educational value.
Just because a college or university has an “elite” reputation, don’t assume that students will get an elite education there.