Is College Worth it? Part 3: Learning

We are filling colleges with too many unprepared students who don’t want to be there in pursuit of a misguided idea of prestige.

For most middle class American families, the four year undergraduate college experience has (de)generated into merely an expected step in the process – motions rather than actions. As discussed in part 1, college grads have more jobs than non college grads. So far, the remedy for this gap has been, let’s put everyone in college. Well, perhaps not everyone is meant for college (read till the end before sending hate mail).

I do not mean that certain students are not “good enough” for college. Rather, we must change our understanding of the term “good enough”. Rick Santorum recently referred to President Obama as a snob for supposedly saying that all Americans should go to college. Santorum defended those who were “gifted with their hands” implying that Obama wishes to herd everyone to the base of his ivory tower. Santorum is either a fool or a liar because he and the President actually agree on this issue. 

Germany and much of northern Europe have maintained a competitive advantage in manufacturing by supporting a system of vocational education built around developing skills necessary for a robust and productive industrial sector. Our politicians all pay lip service to the blue collar work ethic, but increasingly, parents and employers look down on those who don’t work at a desk. We enjoy watching Deadliest Catch on TV, but God forbid if one of our kids wants to catch fish for a living. How many times have we heard someone say something along the lines of “study hard, or else you’ll end up a janitor”. No wonder kids feel pressure to sign up for degrees they don’t want and can’t afford.

I learned a lot in college. I’m sure many of you have as well. But of course you did – it would be near impossible to progress through your first few years of adulthood without learning anything. The point is, how much did college instruction have to do with it, and was it worth the cost to you, your family and society?

College is no longer primarily a place for learning. A recent book, Higher Education?, argues that teaching has taken a back seat to research. Even small colleges put so much pressure on their faculty to publish that they often have no time to actually teach. College and university rankings rely heavily on the extent to which an institution’s publications are cited by other publications. But is writing an arcane article on Chaucer’s diet more important than helping students grasp the basics of English literature? We are losing our way and academic scholarship is the currency with which we are selling our souls for prestige.

Another book, Academically Adrift, argues that our colleges are caught up in a public relations arms race in which they are watering down curricula and standards so as to graduate more students and make short-term gains against their peer institutions. Professors are scared of giving bad grades. The end result is that students leave college without having acquired important skills like critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing.

Even critics feel that the US university system is still the envy of the world. But much of that is based on inherited prestige from our graduate programs, which rely heavily on being able to attract the best and the brightest from around the world. If we continue to send more kids to college than we should, it’s only a matter of time before we have yet another debt crisis and a collapse in confidence in an already overvalued product that often fails to deliver on its promises.

Is college worth it? Yes, but we should really be encouraging high school graduates to genuinely consider all their options and support them if they choose something other than a 4-year degree. By channeling students to build off of their actual interests and capabilities, we will certainly produce both better mechanics and better writers.

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2 thoughts on “Is College Worth it? Part 3: Learning

  1. Dear mr cyriac,
    Good ideas leading me to wonder how it’s all working for you and how you are putting together all the stuff you are learning presently. Most of us struggle to figure out what we want and college becomes a place to look at the real world for the first time without mommy and daddy. So if life is an exploration, a choosing and a chance to see things more clearly – how is your personal vision doing? Yes college is not for everyone but this is a good chance to bother you a little and still send you a warm hello.
    All the best. Joel

  2. Very good message, more productive,elaborate vision. Why our goverment machinary is not paying heed to this kind of system. Parents and the society push our young generation to a place they don’t want. Hope for a better future.

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