If you listen to the chatter about higher education today, you’d get a pretty pessimistic picture of the value of college. Technology and Massive open online classes (MOOCs) are “disrupting” their way to the lecture hall doors. Why go to school when you can start the next Facebook? Besides, the real value of a college education comes when you get the piece of paper at the end, hopefully with a couple of lines about how much coffee you fetched as an intern on your resume.
But this view of college, with its focus on networks and titles, is unfair and elitist. The lasting value of college remains, as ever, in learning things. The most important title of all in school is still “student.” Shocking.
First, consider the question of what it actually means to attend college. In the United States, there are nearly 3,000 four-year degree-granting institutions of higher education. Not every one can afford to offer the bucolic lawns and stately dorms of elite universities.
Indeed, with most publicly funded universities, especially those that aren’t flagship schools, the cost of living on campus would exceed the cost of tuition. And yet such schools educate the vast majority of college students. Suggesting that a college experience is defined by the world outside the classroom overlooks the commuters, the ones with part-time jobs, adult or nontraditional students, and the most disadvantaged in society.
Then where is the value of college? A 2011 poll by Pew Research showed that a whopping 97 percent of parents expect their children to attend college of some form, and three-fourths said it was necessary to get ahead in life. There must be something to it.
Put aside the intrinsic questions of self-actualization and human motivations toward new knowledge. Put aside the debate about the science knowledge of how things work, versus the liberal arts knowledge of why things work. Just ask those who will give you money for what you learn: employers.
A critical thinking test by sociologists called the College Learning Assessment (C.L.A.), given to the graduating class of 2009, showed huge divergence in employment outcomes. All college graduates had better employment and income numbers than non-college graduates. But to test the independent variable of the value of a college education, look at the difference between low and high C.L.A. college graduates.
The New York Times, reporting the results, wrote, “Low-C.L.A. graduates were twice as likely as high-C.L.A. graduates to lose their jobs between 2010 and 2011, suggesting that employers can tell who got a good college education and who didn’t. Low-C.L.A. graduates were also 50 percent more likely to end up in an unskilled occupation, and were less likely to be satisfied with their jobs.”
Online education and MOOCs may one day cannibalize college enrollment numbers, but with dismal performance and completion numbers since their rise in 2011, we should consider ourselves grateful that the University of Miami remains committed to an undergraduate education in the classroom. Ultimately, college matters for what you know, and in this debate, that’s the only thing to know.
See here for the counterargument: CON: Real-world experience trumps college education
Patrick Quinlan is a junior majoring in international studies and political science.