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How should we measure the value of higher education?

As we enter the month of May, we enter the season of college graduation–that season of final exams, grading, commencement invitations, and the inevitable round of conversations regarding the value of a college degree. Many are well aware of the influence of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings. In a recent essay appearing in The Atlantic, “Professor X” asks the provocative question: “Is all this higher education really necessary?” He describes “mounting skepticism about the value of a college degree,” even as tuition costs continue to rise. And all of this is amidst an increasingly consumerist model of higher education, where the implicit goal seems to be: diploma, job, big fat paycheck. Professor X compares his experience of college in the 1970s with his more recent teaching position at a small private college After describing his own college experience, he compares it to contemporary campus culture:

“College wasn’t the old place of retreat and meditation that I remembered–a place to quietly condition one’s mind with four years of intellectual crunches and sets and reps. It no longer seemed that intellectual a place at all. Now it was a place where students accumulated credits to advance at their jobs. College was very much part of the workaday world. All kinds of people attended because, if they wanted a bigger paycheck, they had no choice in the matter. The rolls had expanded dramatically, which seemed initially like a good thing. But I was teaching many students who weren’t prepared to do even high school work. I was expected to coax critically reasoning research papers from students who possessed no life of the mind at all: young and not-so-young men and women who didn’t read and thought not a whit about ideas.”

Of course, it is too easy to focus only on criticisms of student achievement. I’m wary of faculty who always complain about their students. And college life has never only been about what goes on in the classroom. The author goes on to criticize college administrators’ spending-sprees, especially vast expansion projects. But the concluding question brings up a student-as-consumer assumption again:

“I couldn’t shake the sense that the college simply wanted to enroll as many students as possible–and that colleges in general had become more focused on the bottom line than in my day. The system had ended up expanding in ways that industry always expands: by jacking up prices, putting money into public relations, and broadening the customer base by marketing even to customers dubiously served by the product. If my informal observations about the tenor of our national discourse are accurate, however, many of those customers are finally starting to ask some tough questions–chief among them: Is all this higher education really necessary?”

As a teacher myself, I’m not a neutral observer. I try to introduce students to the complexity of the Catholic moral tradition, and try to teach them skills of critical reading, persuasive writing, and creative problem-solving. I invite them to integrate their own deepest questions as they engage the material of my courses. And sure, some of my students are not as prepared for college as I think they should be. And yes, some students are more committed to their part-time jobs, extra curricular activities, or beach parties than my class. And of course, some students resent the core curriculum requirements at my school, and wish they didn’t have to take a class in Theology and Religious Studies. But I am also aware, especially at this time of every year, of how much I learn from my students: how their questions challenge me to re-think my lesson plans, how their class presentations integrate fields of research that I wouldn’t have even thought about, how their off-campus activism shapes their contributions to class discussion, how they inspire me to be more courageous in my writing goals and more grounded in my research methods.

So yes, the system is broken. I’m worried about a lot of things: the cost of higher education, anti-intellectual politicians, anti-humanities curriculum revisions, the increasingly common “student as customer” mentality that shapes campus planning. But let’s not lose sight of the collaborative nature of learning, and the value of education itself. I don’t think we should measure the value of higher education by comparing alumni salaries. One of my colleagues explains her view of our role as theology professors: to prepare students for the three c’s: career, culture, citizenship. If Professor X is right, and Americans today are skeptical about the benefits of college, then we–college professors–have a lot of explaining to do. As soon as we’re done with our end-of-semester grading, that is…

 

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