As I noted the other day, we’re entering graduation season, one of the two month-long periods (the other being “back to school” time in August/September) when everybody pretends to care deeply about education. Accordingly, the people at the Pew Research Center have released a new report on the opinions of the general public and college presidents about various topics related to higher education. The totally neutral post title is copied from their report.
So, what do they find about general public attitudes? The usual confused muddle:
Cost and Value. A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority–75%–says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. At the same time, however, an overwhelming majority of college graduates–86%–say that college has been a good investment for them personally.
This is more or less the result you get from any poll of this sort. People hate politicians, but like their own local elected officials; they dislike the medical establishment, but like their own doctors; and so on. The exact numbers vary from topic to topic, but the general pattern holds.
The general topic, though, is worth talking about a little, because I think “worth it” is a poorly defined question, which is something that is important to remember when thinking about things like this survey or the Academically Adrift business.
Most people writing reports or op-eds with titles like “Is College Worth It?” have some reason to claim that the answer is “no.” Economists point to the high cost of college, and argue that the wage premium for a college degree doesn’t justify the up-front investment. Academic scolds invent tests of one quality or another, and use them to show that our college students isn’t learning. And so on. Nearly all of them end up scratching their heads at public opinion results like this Pew survey, marveling that people can be so dumb/gullible/whatever to continue believing that college is worthwhile, often forecasting DOOM for the academy as a result.
The problem is, “worth it” means different things to different people, and many of the meanings aren’t captured by whichever standard is in use at the time. As a result, it’s perfectly possible for everyone to be right, in their own frame of reference, but for all the individual actors to think that everybody else is wrong.
From an academic’s perspective, the ideal case is probably a student who comes to college and falls in love with learning. They take a course to fill a requirement on their way to the medical/law/business degree that their parents want them to get, and find a passion for some other subject, and run with that, going on to become a scholar themselves. This probably doesn’t produce any particular economic benefit, but it quite literally changes the course of that student’s life. Down the road, if asked, they will almost certainly say that the experience was “worth it” for them.
Other students come in needing specific factual knowledge to move on in their careers– they know that they want to go to medical school, but need a biology degree and two physics classes to get in. This may not produce any significant improvement in some academic’s test of “critical reasoning,” but it produces a very significant improvement in the student’s chances of medical school admission. Down the road, if asked, they will probably say that the experience was “worth it,” before collapsing in a heap at the end of their 36-hour on-call shift.
Still other students just need the connections that come with a degree from a particular institution. They’re aiming at the same tier of semi-anonymous white-collar jobs as millions of other college students, but because they went to the same Flagship State U as the person hiring, they get called in for an interview ahead of someone who went to Rival Institution. Or one of their professors has a former student who’s starting a new company and needs a few employees. Or their roommate’s sister’s cousin knows a producer who’s looking for some new writers. And so on. That sort of thing goes on all the time, and again, it may not show up as an increase in some quasi-academic measure, or as a big bump in earnings, but if it makes the difference between getting the job that they want rather than another job that isn’t quite as good (or, in this market, no job at all), those students will say the experience was “worth it” to them.
And there are others who are just looking for interesting experiences along the way. They know they’re going to become lawyers or middle managers, and want to have some fun before they go into the working world. Whether that means spending a term taking art history or Chinese literature, or spending a semester in Europe or Australia, or just drinking improbable quantities of alcohol at major sporting events, they’re looking to have some fun before they become corporate drones. And as long as they have good stories to tell their friends down the road, they may very well consider the experience “worth it” for them.
For most people, the end result of college is some combination of these to varying degrees– they discovered an unlikely major, and their profesor knew somebody on the graduate admissions committee at another university, which got them a degree, and a former teammate knew a guy who was hiring, etc. “Worth it” is a muddy and complicated thing, and not particularly well captured by most of the crude measures people bring to bear on it. Which is why huge numbers of college graduates continue to say that going to college was worthwhile for them, in spite of whatever flavor of DOOM the author of the latest “Is College Worth It?” piece is peddling.