There’s a compelling article by Louis Menard in this week’s New Yorker.  In it Menard, a former college professor, posits three reasons to go to college, or three philosophies that describe the value of a college degree:

More and more Americans are going to college, but how many of them are actually learning anything?

1. College is a tool that measures intelligence. All of the reading and writing and other academic assignments that college students are required to do result in a measure of intelligence that takes four years to create: the GPA. Graduate schools and employers use that number to evaluate a candidate’s intelligence.

2. College levels the playing field. Also known as “college for everyone,” this theory states that everyone can enjoy the benefits of a college degree , which include a vastly more lucrative lifetime of income.

3. College is career training. This theory states that college trains the learner for a career (in nursing, business, teaching, construction, engineering, etc.).

His guiding question for the article is more and more Americans are going to college, but how many of them are actually learning anything?

Ken Robinson

As I read I was reminded of Ken Robinson’s talk I heard at the NAIS conference in New York City several years ago. Robinson observed what he called “academic inflation:” where a college degree is the new high school degree and eventually everyone will need a masters or more (see here, at about 12:40). That seems to be a theory 1 argument, where, according to Menard, “the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential.”

I often see the best and brightest students headed off to the most expensive private colleges and universities, which cost $50,000 and up per year. Heck, I encourage many of my students to apply to these schools. Public colleges and

Malcolm Gladwell

universities cost less than a fourth that much per year. I am not an economist, but there are definitely some interesting economic principles at work here. In 1950, private colleges/universities enrolled about 1.14 million students,  as did the publics. Today publics enroll  nearly fifteen million while the privates enroll less than 6 million. This creates intense competition for slots at the elite privates (31,000 applications for 1,500 slots at Brown, for example). Menard argues that this intense competition for a scare commodity  (acceptances at elite private college) overvalues that commodity when there are cheap and plentiful substitutes (the publics). I remember reading an argument similar to this by Malcolm Gladwell back in 2005.

You can get a great education at an expensive elite private university and you can get a lousy one there, too. Same thing at a public university. The student is responsible for the education. Of course.

The final thought I want to share from this article is that a liberal arts education is still valuable and serves a person very well. I hear from many students and parents, especially parents who themselves haven’t gone to college, the same thing about liberal arts education: but what can  you do with a degree in political science, history, philosophy, English, etc? College counselors like me have to educate students and families about liberal arts education all the time. The philosophy behind a liberal arts education is that college teaches students to think critically, to reason analytically, to problem solve and to write well. In other words, a liberal arts education teaches effective thinking and communication. It does not teach a trade.

Menard points out that liberal arts graduates are significantly better at these vital thinking (and career) skills than their counterparts in other programs:

…students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A. [Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test of what college graduates learn], and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health.

I’m going to ask my students the question: why are you going to college? There are as many answers as there are possible colleges and universities. I bet a lot of them will say, “Because that’s what’s next.”

That’s as good an answer as any, I suppose.

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