Kevin Sun

College is a mandatory marathon

June 20, 2022

The title of this post suggests that I'm giving advice to people entering college. Stuff like: Pace yourself! Make friends! Enjoy the process! But this isn't an advice column. If you want advice, I'll just say that you should try to actually learn, and leave it at that.

In this post, I want to discuss the following metaphor: going to college is like running a marathon. My friend Albert and I realized that this metaphor helps explain a number of college-related problems and phenomena.

To be more specific, we suspect that many students feel that going to college is like being forced to run a marathon. The word "forced" is important, because although attending college is technically voluntary (like running a marathon), there's so much peer/parental/economic pressure that pushes people towards college. High schools boast about how many students they send to college; the "elite" ones are often known as "feeder" schools. People are willing to pay, cheat, and scam their way into college, so surely attending is desirable. In fact, everyone knows that people who graduate from college earn more than people who don't. And so on, and so on. The point is, unlike runners who choose to run marathons, most college students can't truly say that they chose to attend of their own volition. [1] That's why college is a mandatory marathon, not just a marathon.

So why do I like this metaphor? Simply put, colleges are about learning, and marathons are about running. The core similarity is that most people don't enjoy either activity, especially in the presence of exams, stopwatches, competition, hot weather, etc. But most people also know that there are potential long-term benefits, and they might've faced the pressures mentioned above, which is why they try it in the first place.

The other big similarity is that marathons and colleges are both artificial environments that measure a proxy for something that people actually want. Being able to run a marathon isn't the same as being healthy (although it's definitely a good sign). Similarly, being able to ace exams and homework isn't the same as being well read, or being a good citizen, or having the skills demanded by the job market, or whatever outcome people believe that going to college achieves. There's even that Mark Twain quote that implies school is counterproductive to its stated goals: "I never let my schooling interfere with my education." [2]

Of course, some people actually love learning in a school environment, just like some people actually love running. An obvious example is the professors. They're like the pacers at a marathon: they run at a predetermined speed (in college, they follow a syllabus/textbook), motivate others to run (teach courses and give assignments), and presumably love the sport of running (academia/learning). Some also feel baffled when students don't share their enthusiasm, or frustrated when they can't keep up. They might feel "sad and angry" when students cheat. From their perspective, running is a beautiful sport with a plethora of benefits. Why would anyone feel incentivized to cheat, when running is so great?

Students cheat because they realize that nobody is observing the race itself. Everyone is waiting at the finish line: family, friends, random people who live nearby, and perhaps most importantly, the people who hand out the medals. (A medal represents a well paying job in this metaphor.) Finishing the marathon opens the door to financial rewards, but it doesn't matter how, exactly, you "ran" the race.

Employers don't care: most job applications do not require a transcript, and even when transcripts are required, they're rarely scrutinized. Parents, who are often the ones paying, don't know what classes their children take. College administrators only get involved when a student is on the verge of dropping out. And why would professors care? They're not cops trying to meet some quota. In fact, failing a student can be a big hassle, so if a failing student figures out a way to boost their grade, the professor might turn a blind eye.

In short, nobody cares about which courses you took, or how well you did in those courses. It doesn't matter if you cut through a back alley, rode your bike, or even called a taxi with your friends. All that matters is that you cross the finish line.

Again, I think students realize all of this, even the ones who didn't read Bryan Caplan's book. They hunt for easy courses. They cheer when classes are canceled. And of course, they cheat. The fact that most courses are graded on a curve exacerbates the problem. If everyone else cheats and you don't, then your grade suffers. Even if there isn't an explicit curve (e.g., "only the top 15% of students get an A"), there's often still an implicit curve that guides professors' decisions. An unusual distribution of grades could draw unwanted attention from college administration, result in poor student evaluations, and generally damage the professor's reputation. For the most part, professors grade by comparing students against each other, which benefits the cheaters.

At research institutions, professors aren't incentivized to teach students well, especially the ones with tenure. Instead of running at a steady pace, they sprint, crawl, or even go off course. Every seven years or so, they relish the opportunity to take a sabbatical, which is often just a fancy name for not having to teach. They're not paid to motivate students to learn; they're paid to do research, which is completely different. In the marathon metaphor, it's like asking the civil engineer who designed the concrete to lead a group of students on a run. Perhaps this engineer was once a runner, but nowadays, they'd rather tinker in their laboratory, or apply for a grant, than volunteer at a marathon.

The final parallel I'll draw between college and marathons is that people pay, and sometimes even borrow money, to do both. Yet many drop out without much to show, and wonder if they made a mistake. The fact that they were pressured to start, but didn't finish, presumably makes them feel worse. Others finish, but for some reason, don't receive a medal. Maybe they pass out from exhausation (the parallel in college is chronic stress), there aren't enough medals (economic recession), or the person handing them out is racist (racism). And a very small number of people (say, your favorite billionaire college dropout) start the race, but veer off course because they found a warehouse full of medals (money). When this happens, they get lionized by some and villainized by others. Did they beat the game, or did they break the rules?

In summary: for many students, attending college feels like being forced to run a marathon. The good news, for them, is that they'll be rewarded as long as they cross the finish line, and nobody's watching the race itself. The bad news, for society, is that many of them cheat. It's hard for me to articulate exactly why cheating is bad, but it certainly undermines the colleges' mission statements, which makes them look stupid. They'd probably agree that that's bad.

If you think this whole metaphor sounds rather pessimistic, I think you're right, but I'm not the only one who thinks this way. I'll end with a passage from a book by David F. Labaree, aptly titled Someone Has to Fail:

If successful teaching, as I have noted, requires the willingness of the student to learn, then success is even harder to obtain because the student is there involuntarily. Motivating volunteers to engage in human improvement is very difficult, as any psychotherapist can confirm, but motivating conscripts is quite another thing altogether. And it is conscripts that teachers face every day in the classroom.


[1] I'm actually rather skeptical of free will as a whole, so my claim that nobody really chose to go to college is just the tip of the iceberg. It's plausible to me that, in the same way, people who choose to run marathons didn't really "choose" to do so either. But this goes way beyond the scope of this post.

[2] Apparently he also said, "Everything has its limit — iron ore cannot be educated into gold." Hmm...