Don't Despair, Prof. Menand!

Louis Menand wrote an interesting column in The New Yorker that I have been thinking about alot this summer. He asks a simple question: What is the value of a college education now that so many Americans have access to one? To answer this question, he outlines two broad and opposing theories of what college is supposed to do.

Theory 1 is meritocratic: 

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects….At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.

Theory 2 is democratic:

Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups….There is stuff that every adult ought to know, and college is the best delivery system for getting that stuff into people’s heads.

Menand confesses that he is a Theory 2 person. So am I. In fact, I think you would be hard-pressed to find many people involved in higher education—students, faculty, or administrators—who would emphasize the College-as-Horse-Race Theory over the College-As-Socialization-and-Education Theory. The real split reflected throughout Menand’s column—and I think Menand is aware of this, although he doesn’t address it systematically—is not between Theory 1 and Theory 2, but between elite private institutions and more accessible public institutions:

But, as private colleges became more selective, public colleges became more accommodating. Proportionally, the growth in higher education since 1945 has been overwhelmingly in the public sector. In 1950, there were about 1.14 million students in public colleges and universities and about the same number in private ones. Today, public colleges enroll almost fifteen million students, private colleges fewer than six million.

Menand begins his column by recalling his early career at an Ivy League University (Princeton), where the question of the value of a college education never crossed his mind. It was only after leaving for a public university (CUNY) that he confronted the issue. Interestingly, Menand doesn’t mention that after his sojourn at a large public institution, he has since returned to the Ivy League (Harvard). I’m pleased that he is still thinking and writing so clearly and eloquently about the value of a college education, but while I share his basic educational philosophy and hopes, I don’t share his despair about what he (and the authors of the studies that he cites in his column) see as students’ increasing disengagement from the intellectual side of the college experience. I think that the difference in our attitudes lies in our different positions on the academic map. If he were still at CUNY, I think his column would have been more optimistic.


The Value of a Non-Elite College Education

Menand recalls a time during his CUNY years when a student asked him bluntly: “Why did we have to buy this book?” This was, he argues, a great question from an engaged student who truly wanted to understand—and for his professor to justify—the value of a college education. “He was trying to understand how the magic worked,” writes Menand, “I (a Theory 2 person) wonder whether students at that college are still asking it.” He is left to wonder because he is once again part of a population of students and faculty who aren’t faced with this question.

I work at one of those large public universities where the enormous growth in students has taken place over the past several decades. Students and faculty and administrators and families “out here” are constantly weighing the value of college education. As a hard-core Theory 2 person, I want as many students to attend and graduate from college as possible. Why? One could take the academic high ground and point out the importance of thinking critically, solving problems analytically, and expressing oneself clearly. All true and important reasons for higher education. Or one could take the low ground and point out that American workers with college degrees earn significantly higher salaries than those without degrees. Also true and perhaps also important.

But I would rather take up the question in the spirit that Menand does and address the practical value of a public college education. I see three great benefits to college that have nothing to do with the stuff of a college education or the marketability of the degree after completing it: 

  • College has value as an aspiration. Students vying to get into elite universities by spending their pre-college careers filling up their resumes with high GPAs in AP courses and impressive extra-curricular activities get all of the attention. Most of our students aren’t competing with these students for university admission. But they are doing something similar: they are spending their pre-college years working to get to the next level. They are taking a college-prep curriculum (foreign languages, advanced math) and are trying to get B’s or better. Many are first generation college students, whose parents have encouraged them to aspire to college from an early age. Even before the first day of freshman year—heck, even before receiving the acceptance letter—college has provided these students with value-added to their high school educations.
  • College has value as a place to try out a new identity. Sometime around the end of the first marking period of 9th grade, the contours of our social identities are pretty much set for the next four years. We conform roughly to one of several clichéd social types: The Athlete, The Brain, The Criminal, The Princess, The Basketcase (to use the classic schematic developed by one of the greatest sociological studies of high school). College gives you the opportunity to reboot your identity—with four years of valuable experience behind you to serve as a guide.
  •  College has value as a place to make mistakes without irreversible consequences. Miss a week of work and you will likely lose your job. Miss a week of classes and you might end up with lower grades on your report card. Lesson learned, hopefully. And a chance to start again next semester and get it right this time. 

Come to think of it, college is a lot like kindergarten. A place to experiment and learn and socialize and prepare for the next phase of one’s career—when the consequences are higher. Not so long ago, attending kindergarten was not the norm for American students. Today it is. College is headed in the same direction. This is something to celebrate, not despair over.