'The Point of College Is a Credential'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The closing panel at our Education Summit yesterday, led by Ron Brownstein, centered on the question “What’s the point of college?” The full video of the discussion is here, but here’s a snippet, which includes Jeffery Selingo elaborating on his view that college is a credential:

Chris Sick, via the TAD group of Atlantic readers, offers a long and thoughtful take on the question at hand:

College is a very strange nexus where many of the worst facets of our society compete against each other to decide whose ox is going to be the one to get gored. There’s a large number of tenured faculty and high-ranking administrators who talk the talk of expanding the mind, training citizens to think critically, engaging intellectually with the world. They’ve been on staff forever, they went to college when a year’s tuition cost $4,500 instead $45,000. So, y’know, they can talk that happy horseshit with a seemingly straight face.

Then there are the parents, more recent grads, and incoming students who believe that college is an experience that gives kids training wheels on adulthood, while simultaneously exposing them—possibly for the first time—to people from different walks of life. These people probably listened to “Common People” one too many times, and it’s sorta problematic.

A while back I read an article by Eric Posner insisting that college students are, basically, children who need more rules and regulations and should not be treated as full adults. This is problematic at a time when the majority of college students are nontraditional. You can imagine why an article like that would irritate someone like me, who finally pursued a bachelor’s degree in my thirties. It’s also problematic when some segment of society views this very, very, very expensive experience as some sort of essential transition to adulthood, and thereby those who can’t afford it aren’t, somehow, adults.

So you have those dual tensions of, basically, a kind of idealism: College is either about pure intellectual pursuit and knowledge, or about a sort of transitional life changing that opens the doors—and forms the networks—for adulthood.

Colleges are increasingly treating their undergraduate populations as revenue streams for other projects. Here at Columbia, the university is simultaneously underfunding and overstraining the undergraduate schools in favor of improving its global standing as a research institution. Yale, fr’instance, has seen such dramatic growth in its endowment over the last few years—while continuing to increase tuition and pursuing cost-cutting layoffs in some departments—that it’s not unfair to ask what their institutional priorities are. Do they exist to grow funding to assist students, improve research capabilities, or to just have a massive endowment to brag about to alums and trustees?

There are a lot of tensions pulling in different directions. For my entire life—so a generation, at least—college has been seen as not just a pathway to middle-class security, but the pathway. And during that same time, the cost of it to students has spiraled ever upward.

I think there’s something to the (generally speaking) pro-market/conservative argument that the easy lending criteria and government support for student loans has made it easier for colleges to demand more and more money. There’s also significant evidence that the administrative bodies of universities has swollen dramatically, and colleges are spending more than ever on support offices that don’t directly impact academics, as well as luxury offerings like upscale dorms, recreation and exercise spaces, study abroad opportunities.

But mostly I think it’s just that first thing: You told a generation or more of Americans that they needed to go to college to have a fighting chance in a competitive job market. What family wouldn’t mortgage everything to give their child that?

So you have an idealism of college as hallowed space training citizens for deep, critical engagement in their democracy (spoiler: It isn’t this, because it can’t be this); a more realistic view of it as training wheels for middle-class adulthood, where not only the skills, but the social networks and capital for such are developed; and employers for some time have been requiring a college degree for even menial gigs because it presents (theoretically) proof of a basic level of competency.

Meanwhile, universities are increasingly corporatizing at nearly every level. Beyond the administrator class, there’s high pay to be had for provosts and presidents who come from MBA/Fortune 500 backgrounds, while faculty pay stagnates. Students are viewed in terms of either customers or revenue streams, and when the administrative class that is steeped in that thinking treats them as such, you get angry hand-wringing from the likes of Jonathan Chait insisting that the kids today are not alright.

These aren’t incidental: When you curve the university experience to being transactional and treat students as customers, you’re going to have to, y’know, treat them as customers. [CB: See David Graham’s related note, “Why Don’t Students Strike? Because They Think They’re Customers.”] And that’s going to engender an outsized sense of power on their part, not helped by the administrative class having a vested interest in keeping them happy. This flashpoint most frequently gets highlighted in messy fights over student demands, but I think grade inflation is another symptom of it that causes far more problems.

I’m just sort of rambling, now, but there are so many different things happening that all contribute to the problems our higher education system is facing right now. For what it’s worth, I tend to align my sympathies more closely with, say, Yale’s student protesters than the likes of Chait or Conor Friedersdorf (whom I had a long email exchange with about this subject); I suspect there’s yet another tension there, where more and more elite universities are actively recruiting students of color and/or from disadvantaged backgrounds but really fail to support them once they’re there. [CB: See the Notes conversation on the “mismatch theory” of affirmative action.] To say nothing of telling kids they’re whining/spoiled and illiberal for being dissatisfied going to a school named after a famous racist (pick one) that used their prodigious intellectualism to articulate why they're subhuman.

So we’re left with multiple different actors all articulating different—and frequently competitive and contradictory—ideals for what college ought to be and do. But the underlying agreement is that you should go to college: either because it will make you a good citizen, or expand your mind, or teach you to be a grown-up, or because your potential future employers would rather you take $100k in debt to learn how to use Word rather than them pay you for three months while they assign someone to teach you ...

I’m not one to look back on the past—either ancient or recent—with some sort of idealistic assumptions about things being better back in the day. That said, I suspect that colleges were historically more academically and intellectually rigorous than they are presently, and that past generations not only got a better education (in terms of pure intellectualism/knowledge) but got it at a significantly better price.

But I think that has far more to do with the simple fact that universities used to be significantly more elite. Only ~20 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or better, but that’s up for ~5 percent around the middle of the 20th century. You can’t grow the numbers that big and maintain the same standards across the board, and that’s not even taking into account the dramatic growth in international students coming to the U.S. for a degree ...