By Phil Hamilton, December 24, 2009 in What is Education?
In November, the Chronicle Review (published by the Chronicle of Higher Education) published a forum dealing with the question "Are Too Many Students Going to College?" The participants on both sides of the question put forth some compelling arguments regarding this question as well as about the benefits and costs of higher education. Given that most of us work in the field, I also thought that blog readers might wish to reflect upon this issue.
I admit that I am of two minds about the question. Every semester, I see at least some students who are unprepared and/or unmotivated to perform college-level work. Would they be better off at a vocational institution or going directly into the workforce? For some students, the answer is definitely yes; but for others, the answer would be no, as I sometimes see lackluster students mature and change for the better during their four years of college.
Undoubtedly, college provides many benefits: a B.A. certainly provides one with greater earning power. All empirical evidence points to this. Yet this benefit is off-set by the growing levels of debt that many students (and their parents) are increasingly taking to pay for college. Is there a tipping point where the salary benefits one gains pale in relation to the mountain of debt many incur?
There is also the intellectual development that (hopefully) occurs during one’s college career. Ideally, a college-educated graduate leaves the academy a more reflective and thoughtful person—more knowledgeable about the natural world, the past, and human societies in general. Such a person also is more articulate and can communicate thoughts and ideas more clearly and meaningfully. Finally, I would argue that college graduates enjoy more satisfying and fulfilling lives. In short, intellectual development ideally creates a person who is more curious, empathetic, and thoughtful.
Some of the Forum participants mentioned that college also imparts certain social/work skills that can rarely be acquired otherwise. Such skills prepare graduates for work after college when one must interact, converse, and sometimes socialize with customers, peers, and superiors.
Others commentators discussed who should pay for higher education—individuals or the government (through appropriations to public institutions as well as through subsidized loans and grants)? Because society benefits from a better educated population, I certainly see the legitimate rationale for government assistance and support. But I also believe that students should be pay a significant portion of their tuition costs as that tells them that their educations are not free. And sharing the sacrifice makes students take their education more seriously.
The most vigorous debate was over who exactly should and should not go to college? For instance, Charles Murray said that "the four year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people." Perhaps he is correct. But I wonder who determines the right and wrong path for individuals. At my institution, an official from the German embassy recently spoke about the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in the course of her remarks, she mentioned how most 4th-grade German children are placed by their teachers into one of three educational tracts: 1. Vocational, 2. Professional, 3. Academic. Undoubtedly, these actions by grammar school teachers affect these students' lives forever. While this might seem an efficient way for a society to divvy up limited educational resources, the system seems profoundly troubling and undemocratic to me. Is America's fairly open (and albeit costly) system of higher education the way to go?