It’s that time of the year again – as you read this, tens of thousands of freshman are still getting over tearful goodbyes after having been dropped off at college. And as those same kids learn the importance of hydration to the morning after a night of partying, countless parents are probably asking: is it really worth it?
Or at least they’ll be asking that soon enough when the schools start sending out tuition statements. And a lot of last Spring’s crop of graduates – still looking for work and only now starting to make loan repayments – are probably asking that question along with them. As the cost of a four-year degree continues to rise, it would seem that the job market is tilting in the direction of those who argue that too much of what passes for higher ed is actually finishing school in a country club setting.
Not surprisingly, there’s been an element of schadenfreude in some of the coverage as some people seem all too pleased to see their cultural competitors getting their comeuppance. American universities can certainly be cloistered places, and access to them isn’t always meritocratic. Whether it’s the preference shown to legacy students or to donor families, elite educational institutions remain a major mechanism for perpetuating privilege. As technology is developed that might make it possible for more people to have access to world-class educational material at little or no cost, many critics of the current system are celebrating this potential turn towards openness.
I tend to be more skeptical. Many of the technologies people are excited about deal with information storage and transfer, but they lack certain basic elements of classroom learning, such as instant feedback. And it’s doubtful whether online learning will ever be able to replace the nuanced experience students gain when discussing difficult material with each other – whether it be in the classroom or in late night sessions. There’s also a very real danger that online learning might tend towards the same sorting tendency that online news consumption exhibits: you would be less likely to be meaningfully confronted with opposing views, or to be infected with someone else’s passion for a previously unknown subject. Though it’s true that college campuses already exhibit significant sorting, there are good reasons to imagine this effect would be more pronounced online.
Beyond these objections, much of the discussion seems to miss the point that students go to college go gain cultural and social capital in addition to new information. The social networks students build in college represent a major gain – one which cannot be easily replicated without the benefit of campus living. While there, students are also socialized into the sorts of communities they will inhabit professionally. This socialization process is probably most critical for precisely those students the proponents of online learning imagine non-campus education would benefit the most: students of color from underprivileged or marginal backgrounds. When you go for an interview, you better know how to behave like someone who belongs there, and if you didn’t learn that growing up, then college is where you’re going to pick it up.
So I don’t expect the four-year liberal arts education to go extinct. Though perhaps this is where I should note a few important facts about the educational landscape that make much of the above conversation less relevant: only 0.4% of students attend Ivy League schools, more than 47% of students come from families with annual incomes below $40,000, fewer than 33% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree, and while 73% of students attend public institutions, only 9% attend flagship institutions or other research schools. (Source.)
So maybe for the vast majority of workmanlike colleges, online learning will prove to be more disruptive than in the idyllic New England campuses we too readily conjure up. And perhaps that should be the case. The truth is that I attended an elite university and I don’t have a particularly nuanced grasp on what goes on at other campuses. I imagine that in some ways it is qualitatively different than what happens at elite universities; that is, there’s a tighter coupling between coursework and employment prospects. Though to be truthful, during college I met quite a few employment oriented folks that didn’t seem very much interested in intellectual pursuits, per se.
There is an inescapable instrumentalist bias in how we approach public policy in this country. And from that perspective, there are still good utilitarian arguments to be made in favor of the liberal arts degree. The most significant of these is probably that the workers of tomorrow need to be nimble in order to compete in a rapidly changing world and that a liberal arts education is the best preparation for that task.
But the lesson of the past decade seems to be that the experience of earning accreditation in return for four years of half-hearted intellectual effort and ready access to beer wasn’t worth as much as we were taught to believe. Strictly from an earnings standpoint, a college degree in and of itself isn’t worth as much as we thought. In that sense, my generation was misled. Too many students went to college and took on debt under the understanding that the four-year degree would be the guarantor of future earnings. That might still prove to be true, but with each jobs report it looks less likely.
Meanwhile, college graduates listen incredulously as people around us wonder where we ever got the idea to go to college in the first place. But during our formative years, the consensus was that a college education was the ticket to the middle and upper-middle classes and so my generation acted according to what everyone thought they knew. In other words, we’re now being criticized for having done exactly what was asked of us. It doesn’t always sit well.
So, was college worth it? Was a liberal arts education worth it? In many ways, what goes on at institutions of higher learning is exactly what happens wherever people gather to discuss ideas: the seeds of a thousand revolutions and counterrevolutions are sown. The role of educational institutions is not just to produce workers, but also to produce citizens. How can we govern ourselves if we don’t understand history, if we haven’t grappled with the paradoxes of self-governance, if we haven’t been awed by the wonders of the universe, and we haven’t learned, through fiction, to view the world through the eyes of others? All those who diminish the value of such pursuits are as convincing to me as a blind man dismissing the photography of Ansel Adams or Annie Leibovitz.
But, today’s students deserve a more honest assessment of what the tradeoffs of going to college are. At the very least, colleges and universities shouldn’t be allowed to justify ever higher costs under the rationale that students can count on future earnings to defray them without being willing to substantiate those claims. Maybe they should be willing to put more skin in the game: if the earnings don’t materialize, then the debt goes away. But in the shuffle, I hope we won’t lose touch with a sentiment architect Charles F. McKinn saw fit to inscribe on the front of Boston’s Public Library: “The Commonwealth Requires the Education of the People as the Safeguard of Order and Liberty.”
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
Have a thought on this piece? Then share it in the comments! Or if you have a question or suggestion for a new piece, submit it through the Feedback form. And don’t forget to subscribe on the homepage to get posts and features automatically sent to your inbox.