Why Go to College?

I usually discuss k-12 schooling in this space. However this time, I would like to address higher education. In several of my columns here I have addressed the issue of the purpose of public schools, and I am going to bring that question to this next level. One of the purposes of k-12 schools we are now told is to prepare students for college and university work. What, therefore is the purpose of college and university work? The obvious or cliché answer is to get ahead in life. However, this assumption that the purpose of college is to get ahead in life needs further examination.

In k-12 schools we are told that students must spend more time studying academic subjects. Those involved in higher education are often referred to as Academia. But the people of the United States have contradictory attitudes toward things being academic. On the one hand we have the expression “It’s academic,” meaning it has no practical significance—maybe interesting philosophically or intellectually, but when real or practical decisions matter, irrelevant. On the other hand, in schools today, especially k-12 schools, if it is not academic it is not important. Arts, music, physical education, recess, everything that is not “academic” must  be thrown out in this time of crisis. (That such a crisis actually exists is also a matter for much debate, but the media ignores that fact as well—reminds me of how at airports for the last 10 years we are in a constantly reminded over the PA system that we are in a state of emergency. Deborah Meier points out in a recent column that such a crisis seems to have always existed in our public education system.)

It was not long ago that Colleges and Universities were purposely seen as “only academic.” They made no claim to study anything practical, to prepare anyone for the workforce. To do so was seen as beneath them—that was the job of trade schools. Colleges and Universities were where the elite went to improve their minds, to become cultured and well educated—but not trained for the work world. Back when medical schools were being established as the main way for doctors to be certified, many universities resisted having medical schools attached them precisely for that reason—not wanting to be seen as trade schools.

In many fields, the more practical the study, the less esteemed it is—this is certainly true in the mathematics and hard sciences. And even within the hierarchy of university departments, it has historically been that the more practical the less esteemed, with teacher education being at the bottom of the totem pole, and theoretical sciences at pretty much the top.

However, college is more and more being sold to the public as an economic necessity. We are bombarded with charts of the higher earnings that college graduates make. We are told there is no future for those without a college degree. High schools are measured by how many graduates get in to college. Colleges advertise how well they do at getting their graduates good jobs.

For most of the first half of the 20th century most students did not finish high school. But there was no shame in that. Not only no shame, finishing high school was not seen as necessary or even useful in getting a good working class job—one on which someone could end up supporting a family and buying a home, living the American dream.

By the second half of the 1900s, a high school diploma appeared to be necessary. Now in the 21st Century, it seems the college diploma has become the new high school diploma. Whether jobs actually require the higher skills and knowledge obtained in college, or whether it is just that one needs a higher diploma to beat out the competition (or a combination of the two) is a matter of debate. Few employers actually claim that what their employees learned in school in terms of any content was really that helpful for what they needed to do the job.

Despite the debate of the actual practical knowledge learned, colleges and universities are certainly sold as the keys to an improved financial future. This has led to a crisis in identity for higher education. Many, in if not most college professors still think of themselves as teaching students in order to broaden their minds, get them intellectually interested in topics for their own sakes, improve their ability to communicate and think about the larger issues of life.

More and more though, professors are being asked, not just by students, but by administrators and the university system as a whole, to justify the purpose of what they are teaching in practical terms. Departments that are seen as practical, as leading directly to a job, are growing, such as business and engineering schools, while ones that are seen as purely “academic” shrink. And universities, in the competition for students and for money, steer toward those that are attractive in that way.

When college was just for the elite, to better their minds, professors could just say to students, if you are not interested, you do not need to be here. Now professors need to sell their students, and the university as a whole, on the purpose and practicality of what they are teaching. Students complain about having to take courses to fulfill breadth requirements, and professors dread having these students in their courses.

If colleges and universities are just places to further train our youth for a workforce that (supposedly) requires higher levels of education in our technological information rich society, why have such requirements at all? Why not just let students take those practical courses they need for the field they have chosen to pursue? Is there a place in society for the idea that an educated populace is well rounded in terms of the arts, humanities, literature, languages, and sciences? Does such a notion fit with what we want our society to look like?

Maybe we need to actually go back to differentiating between the two? Maybe to most people we offer college as a trade school, clearly focused on preparing them for a professional or economic field. Then reserve, for those who want it, an education to broaden their minds? Is there a way to separate the two without the latter being purely elitist; can we make it affordable and realistically open to all who were interested? Or is this broader purpose something we really want to insist (or encourage at least) for most people, rather than just leaving it up to see who might want it?

I believe that these are issues that our k-16 educational system is ignoring. If not addressed explicitly, the tensions will not go away, but the conflict will be resolved without a serious consideration of the trade-offs we are making, but rather will be the result of small moves seemingly made to meet the current “demands” of “the system.”