Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Is College Worth It?

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It seems like all the latest college stories claim college isn’t worth it.  Recently, a Nobel-winning economist has said the current level of student debt is unacceptable; a new ranking method indicates the value of each college based on the average salaries of its graduates, and several articles predict the college of the future will be more about online learning and the accumulation of mastery certificates than about classrooms, fall football games, and actual college degrees.

Counselors know the current college picture isn’t perfect, but a closer look at this latest wave of articles shows a lack of understanding of life after high school—a life that’s a little more complex than the authors would have us believe.

·         Student debt is a major issue, but so is consumer debt.  Recent stories suggest the average college graduate completes a Bachelor’s degree with about $27,000 in debt, while other stories indicate the average American household that has credit card debt owes over $15,000 for goods and services put on plastic.  Is the real issue how much private colleges cost, or is the real issue that Americans need to develop new purchasing behaviors as a whole?
·         A closer look at the new college rankings shows us what we already know.  The “best” colleges at creating high-paying jobs are engineering schools, and the “worst” colleges in this area are art schools.  These results suggest counselors need to make sure art students understand they shouldn’t plan on going into this field for the money—except, of course, we already do this.
·         The articles predicting the death of the on-campus overlook the results of the alternatives.  Many of the Massive Online Open Courses that seem to be all the rage are enrolling thousands of students, but have completion rates of less than ten percent—far worse than the graduation rates of most colleges. 
These college concerns leave us with incomplete answers when it comes to issues other than the bottom line and preparation for a better job.  If life after high school is just the accumulation of skills through online courses, where do our 18-22 year-olds live while they’re taking these classes?  How do they learn more about the world if learning involves staring at a screen for three hours a day at the kitchen table they’ve known all their lives?  What experiences will challenge their values and help them prepare for an independent life if the first four years of life on their own look remarkably like the last four years of life with Mom and Dad?

It’s important to remember college is more than the sum of its parts.  For better or worse, college is a place where students grow up; where they learn the rest of the world doesn’t look like them, and the entire world isn’t all about them.  Interacting with people who see things differently and who live different lives is a key component to realizing that growth—growth that can’t fully be realized when the only way students meet is through a screen, or rushing through a series of exams to get a credential to be a better worker.  College is also about learning to be a better person.

Many students spend far too much money and far too little time thinking about their college choice and its relationship to the rest of their lives.  With more time and better training, counselors can help students make better choices for life after high school, and make the most of the resources they have to make sure college enriches their lives, souls, employment opportunities—and the rest of the world.

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