What’s the value of a college education?
from David Ruccio
What’s the value of a college education?
That’s the question on a lot of people’s minds, as one group graduates from colleges and universities, and another group chooses what colleges and universities (if any) they will attend. The first group is saddled with debt and faces dismal job prospects, while the second group tries to secure the necessary finances and begins to think about what they might major in to enter the “real world” in four year’s time.
For Louis Menand, we tell basically two stories about the value of a college education.* According to the first story, college is essentially a four-year intelligence test:
Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.
The other story focuses on the preparation of citizens for a democratic polity:
In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.
And the two stories, of course, matter.
If you like the first theory, then it doesn’t matter which courses students take, or even what is taught in them, as long as they’re rigorous enough for the sorting mechanism to do its work. All that matters is the grades. If you prefer the second theory, then you might consider grades a useful instrument of positive or negative reinforcement, but the only thing that matters is what students actually learn. There is stuff that every adult ought to know, and college is the best delivery system for getting that stuff into people’s heads.
Like Menand, I’m partial to the second story. But there’s a problem: students are being encouraged (by their parents, politicians, and increasingly university administrators) to think vocationally but end up majoring in the liberal arts and sciences. That presents a motivation problem:
when motivation is missing, when people come into the system without believing that what goes on in it really matters, it’s hard to transform minds.
If there is a decline in motivation, it may mean that an exceptional phase in the history of American higher education is coming to an end. That phase began after the Second World War and lasted for fifty years. Large new populations kept entering the system. First, there were the veterans who attended on the G.I. Bill—2.2 million of them between 1944 and 1956. Then came the great expansion of the nineteen-sixties, when the baby boomers entered and enrollments doubled. Then came co-education, when virtually every all-male college, apart from the military academies, began accepting women. Finally, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, there was a period of remarkable racial and ethnic diversification.
These students did not regard college as a finishing school or a ticket punch. There was much more at stake for them than there had been for the Groton grads of an earlier day. (How many hours do you think they put in doing homework?) College was a gate through which, once, only the favored could pass. Suddenly, the door was open: to vets; to children of Depression-era parents who could not afford college; to women, who had been excluded from many of the top schools; to nonwhites, who had been segregated or under-represented; to the children of people who came to the United States precisely so that their children could go to college. For these groups, college was central to the experience of making it—not only financially but socially and personally. They were finally getting a bite at the apple. College was supposed to be hard. Its difficulty was a token of its transformational powers.
Now, we hear much more talk of calculating the value of a college education, of saving money by shortening the time spent in college, of getting an undergraduate business degree, and so on. A lot of that is a product of the rise in the college costs and the debt incurred in paying for college, together with the rising unemployment rate for college graduates. It’s a problem for both students and professors, at least those who believe in the second story of the value of college.
My fear is we’re well on our way to creating a two-tier system: one for a select few governed by the story of a “democratic” education but only for the elite; and the other, governed by stories of selection and vocational preparation, for everyone else.
That would be the end of higher education as we have known it for the past 60 years or so in the United States.
* There’s also story #3: “college is basically a supplier of vocational preparation and a credentialling service. . .advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.”