College degrees are not commodities, but…

Hunter Rawlings III was the president of the University of Iowa while I was an undergraduate there. He subsequently left to go run Cornell, and i strongly suspect that he was a good university president; I have no idea. I scarcely knew what a president was for back in those days. Certainly his WASPy patrician aspect and height didn’t hurt him any in the “cutting-the-right-figure-for-leadership” department. And I’ve always enjoyed his public lectures; I believe he is a classicist.

Thus I read with some interest his op-ed in the Washington Post: College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one. What truly makes an education valuable: the effort the student puts into it. He has a great deal that is wise:

A college education, then, if it is a commodity, is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television

Again, there is much wisdom to this, and my only real quibble is that this thinking should also apply to K-12. Teachers are not solely responsible for learning; students are not solely responsible for learning; parents are not solely responsible for learning; all three of them have a role to play, and if any of them slack, the learning is very likely to suffer. There are bad teachers; there are bad students; and there are lousy parents. A great, motivated student can, indeed, overcome bad teachers and misguided parents. A great teacher can help motivate a disaffected student, or can help shore up poor parenting.

Thus I’d agree with Rawlings here. Going to college and refusing to do any work and then blaming college because you didn’t learn much is a little like me buying a gym membership, never going, and then complaining that I am still fat. But I joined the gym! I should be thin for all that money I paid!

I am usually among the first to say that I don’t think MOOCs are going to replace college or K-12 because I don’t think “mass” has anything to do with how people learn. Education should be, as Adam Gropnik rather preciously points out in reminiscences about La Hune in Paris, sentimental as well as didactic. It’s about being with, intellectually and materially, people who are taking time to worry about the same topics as you are. It’s about coffee shops and a beer and strolls across a quad and sitting under a fig tree reading a book with others stroll by on the quad. We spend entirely enough time clinking on computers rather than living a real life.

Frankly, I am so grateful that I grew up before the “Moocs will get you an education from your computer” phase started because I could just see my parents, for whom money was a definite object, telling me that I had to get a crap job in my home town and live in my room for an online college “because it’s cheaper.” Now my parents sacrificed for me to go to college, and I am very grateful (it doesn’t sound like it, but I am), but one of the most valuable things about going away to college was falling under the influence of educated people, rather than remaining a child of uneducated people in their midst and subject to their directions every day. Everything my parents wanted for me happened–a good job, a secure life– and it happened explicitly because I became part of a world that wasn’t theirs.

Moving away from home to go to college is a good thing for people who want more than the same places they grew up and the same people they grew up with. (If you don’t, no problem!)

But…it’s also now a cripplingly expensive thing for families to take on. And they have to think about what they are getting out of it. It’s only practical, and failing to think about that is neither pragmatic or just.

State governments have systematically stepped away from funding higher education, as the consensus around education and everything else has died. At the risk of making yet another culture war argument, the right gets a lot of the blame for undermining higher ed (deservedly so), but the left has done its fair share, blaming universities for being bastions of privilege, making it a whipping boy for failing to solve poverty, etc. That stepping away from funding, regardless of whether it significantly explains the rise in tuition costs, is at least a symbol of the idea that many people just don’t believe that college is important to public life. And that’s an issue, too, and I don’t think we recapture the idea that college is important by making esoteric arguments about making better citizens. We need better answers.

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