MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Higher Adjudication: Pros & Cons of College | February 1, 2011

For college students, it is always a daunting task to take a giant step backward and ponder where one is, what one’s doing and how — if at all — current studies in higher ed will positively affect one’s individual future. College, after all, is an impossible coincidence of self-discovery and self-advancement, a time when the present joys of freedom fight against demands for focus on the future. Worst, each diploma carries with it a degree of uncertainty, and research on both sides of the issue — whether graduating college is worth its cost — argues constantly in the media and inspires uncomfortably funny quotes: “If you have a college degree you can be absolutely sure of one thing,” said one anonymous author, “you have a college degree.”

What, then, is the condition of higher education in 21st century America? During last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama made clear that, no matter college’s current influence in this country, it will need to grow as a priority in the future to enable all Americans to do big things. “Over the next 10 years,” he said, “nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond high school.” He then presented a challenging but feasible vision: that, by 2020, America “will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

Granted, Obama’s long-term goal goes beyond his time in office, even if he’s reelected. But more importantly, pundits and researchers worry today whether colleges and universities are properly preparing their students for the real world, and whether their astronomical costs — by 2035, four years at an elite private institution will cost nearly $800,000 — justify enrollment. Certain academics, pointing to the esteem gained by European and Asian universities in the past decade, note the backward structure of this country’s collegiate ideology, one of the few in the world founded upon competitive principles. This free-market makeup affects both individual universities and the higher ed system as a whole, as argued by Columbia professor Mark C. Taylor: within individual schools, “departments, divisions, and programs operate independently in ways that do not serve common institutional goals”; and across the country, “educational institutions compete with each other for scarce resources, students and faculty…[and] the pernicious rating systems encourage wasteful competition that makes cooperative ventures all but impossible.”

Others persuade with numbers, and some of them are intimidating. To write Academically Adrift, a book published two weeks ago by the University of Chicago Press, authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa studied a sample of 2,300 students and found that 45 percent of college sophomores — and 36 percent of college seniors — show no improvement in critical thinking abilities while in school. The book blames both undergrads and their universities equally; while students, like the 32 percent per semester who take zero courses with more than 40 pages of assigned weekly reading, often skirt serious in-class demands, colleges allow such academic indifference because they’re rewarded “for enrolling and retaining students rather than educating them.” Further statistics, all of which must be taken with a grain of salt considering the biases underlying their authors, hint endlessly at higher ed’s potential futility: more than one third of America’s 50 million college graduates are working jobs for which a college education is seen as unnecessary, including our 5,000 janitors with PhDs; today’s college grads, according to Wall St. 24/7, will earn 17.5 percent less per year than those who graduated into better labor markets; and law school graduates, often seen as among the most accomplished students in the country, are increasing in number — up 11.5 percent in the last decade — while their job opportunities, down 7.8 percent in the past three years, are dwindling.

Meanwhile, schools are being hit by the economy just as hard as their attendees. USC, for instance, lost $1.2 billion in endowment between July 2008 and June 2009, outpacing the national average by almost eight percent. Meanwhile, the school stands at seventh-worst in terms of overall student debt: CNBC, who dolled out the rankings last Thursday, quotes USC’s student debt at $631.5 million, or an average IOU of $36,787 per student upon graduation. Perhaps it’s too easy to criticize colleges when they’re in such destitute shape, effected drastically by the same economy that seems to be diminishing the prestige of their degrees.

And still, just as many stats in favor of higher ed exist as those against it. Employment for medical scientists will grow by 40 percent through 2018, and by 31 percent for environmental engineers — so perhaps the key is to specialize in your education. Even in today’s economic climate, unemployment among college graduates is half that of non-graduates — so perhaps the all-encompassing thesis of the New York Times, published one month ago, still stands true: “A college education is better than no college education and correlates with higher pay.” In any case, to live up to Obama’s dreams for a college-educated country (see below), America must reinvest in higher education — whether that means fundamentally changing the number of students in college or fundamentally changing the structure of those colleges themselves.

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