What Is College For?

A new piece in The Stone, the NY Times philosophy blog, raises questions about the value of college:

Most American college students are wrapping up yet another semester this week. For many of them, and their families, the past months or years in school have likely involved considerable time, commitment, effort and expense. Was it worth it?

Some evidence suggests that it was.  A Pew Research survey this year found that 74 percent of graduates from four-year colleges say that their education was “very useful in helping them grow intellectually.” Sixty-nine percent said that “it was very useful in helping them grow and mature as a person” and 55 percent claimed that “it was very useful in helping prepare them for a job or career.”  Moreover, 86 percent of these graduates think “college has been a good investment for them personally.”

Nonetheless, there is incessant talk about the “failure” of higher education.  (Anthony Grafton at The New York Review of Books provides an excellent survey of recent discussions.)  Much of this has to do with access: it’s too expensive, admissions policies are unfair, the drop-out rate is too high.  There is also dismay at the exploitation of graduate students and part-time faculty members, the over-emphasis on frills such as semi-professional athletics or fancy dorms and student centers, and the proliferation of expensive and unneeded administrators.  As important as they are, these criticisms don’t contradict the Pew Survey’s favorable picture of the fundamental value of students’ core educational experience.

But, as Grafton’s discussion also makes clear, there are serious concerns about the quality of this experience.  In particular, the university curriculum leaves students disengaged from the material they are supposed to be learning.  They see most of their courses as intrinsically “boring,” of value only if they provide training relevant to future employment or if the teacher has a pleasing (amusing, exciting, “relevant”) way of presenting the material. As a result, students spend only as much time as they need to get what they see as acceptable grades (on average, about 12 to 14 hour a week for all courses combined).  Professors have ceased to expect genuine engagement from students and often give good grades (B or better) to work that is at best minimally adequate.

What Is College For? – NY Times

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