Monday, February 9, 2015

Thinking about college: It's not about the job

It's that time of year. High school juniors are drafting practice college application essays or refining them. High school seniors are nervously watching their email or their home mailboxes, waiting and wondering, wondering and waiting. High school guidance counselors are getting the kind of traffic they've been trying to get all year, trying to convince students who operate only in the present to start thinking slightly ahead. And, perhaps most significantly, high school juniors are prepping for the ACT and SAT.

All of this anxiety for college acceptance even though it has become fashionable to question the value of a college degree. Why do we want kids to go to college? Apparently the most important reason to the pundits who write such things is to get a job.

As we are reminded in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, on February 28, 1967, California Governor Ronald Reagan announced the need for some austerity. In a transcript of that day's press conference, Governor Reagan was asked about the investment in California's youth. There was, apparently, some pushback from A. Alan Post, a longtime budget analyst in the state of California. Governor Reagan asserted they were not
cutting back the investment in California's youth. We've made no pretense that in our cuts there won't have to be some belt-tightening. . . . But there's no one in the administration that intends to do anything that is harmful to education. But we do believe there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without for a year or two without hurting the cause of education.
After a bit more of an exchange, Reagan realized he was getting into some deep and dangerous weeds so chose to refer to an unnamed university in the Midwest that "was offering a master's degree in the repair of band instruments, and I thought this was sort of subsidizing intellectual curiosity."

It was that phrase that got Reagan in so much trouble with the editors of the Los Angeles Times.
"If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized," the editors wrote, "then it is nothing."
The Times was giving voice to the ideal of liberal education, in which college is a vehicle for intellectual development, for cultivating a flexible mind, and, no matter the focus of study, for fostering a broad set of knowledge and skills whose value is not always immediately apparent.
Reagan was staking out a competing vision. Learning for learning’s sake might be nice, but the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for it. A higher education should prepare students for jobs.

Yes, it has become fashionable to question the value of the college degree as though getting a college degree has always been about getting a job and making a lot of money.

Is a college degree worth the time and the money? Apparently so, at least according to this article in The New York Times.
According to a paper by Mr. Autor published Thursday in the journal Science, the true cost of a college degree is about negative $500,000. That’s right: Over the long run, college is cheaper than free. Not going to college will cost you about half a million dollars.
 The author of this article, Mr. Leonhardt, later observes:
But there is nothing magical about 13 years of education. As the economy becomes more technologically complex, the amount of education that people need will rise. At some point, 15 years or 17 years of education will make more sense as a universal goal.
Over and over again, those who have recently written in the support of a college education have done so because it makes financial sense.

On the other hand, there are studies that inform us that not only are high school students NOT ready for college, but college graduates aren't ready for the work place. In fact, 4 in 10 students graduate without the necessary critical thinking skills.
The 40% of students tested who didn’t meet a standard deemed “proficient” were unable to distinguish the quality of evidence in building an argument or express the appropriate level of conviction in their conclusion.

A college degree used to be about discovery, exploration, and curiosity. It used to be about learning more about critical thinking and problem solving, about growing up. It used to be about finding one's passion. It used to be about being challenged to think in more complex ways, to see the ideas and values of others from different perspectives and to learn to draw conclusions. It used to be more than hurriedly constructed bridge to a high-paying job.

The good news is that there are plenty of university professors who are still fighting the good fight, who believe in the importance of a liberal arts education and who are willing to challenge their students rather than cave to those who think they are entitled to a degree simply because they show up on most days. The good news is that most college students are willing to work reasonably hard. The good news is that most high school kids realize that college is an opportunity to learn, to discover, to explore, to satisfy their curiosity about the world in which they live and themselves, and to have the privileged time to figure out some things.

There are no easy solutions to "fixing" the problems of higher education, but I believe that every university has to stop worrying about what any other university is doing and sort out its own vision, its own mission for its own community, and ensure that its actions and priorities support the plan to enable every student and every faculty member to achieve that vision and accomplish that mission.

And, as long as there are teachers and students who continue to pursue intellectual curiosity, who stay focused on their work and their passion for education and ignore the media blather, I remain confident that the kinds of changes that need to be made within each community and not displayed and brayed in social media can and will be made. Probably not tomorrow; probably not even next year. But the educators and those being educated are the ones who should be informing the changes that will help articulate a clear vision and purpose for the pursuit of intellectual curiosity and academic success.

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