What's the Point of College? Cont'd

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

This reader struggles to find a straightforward answer to the question at hand:

What’s the point of college? It depends. As an academic, my answer is too complicated.

Another reader agrees:

The point of college is different depending on where you come from, the social and economic expectations, the money available, your academic record or enthusiasm, and more. The point of college for a trust-funder is different than a poor immigrant, which is different than an semi-affluent suburbanite, which is different from than that of a life-long fuck up, which is different from a rural first-generation college student.

And this reader conveys how the various points of college are not created equal:

Ideally, the purpose of college is to finish off a good, liberal education to broaden one’s understanding of the world: physical, social, and intellectual. Somewhat less ideal, to gain deep knowledge in a field in preparation for graduate school. A little less ideally (to me), to give one the skills necessary to start a middle-class career (or better). Less ideal yet, simply to get that piece of paper to send in with job applications. The reasons just continue going down hill from there.

On the other hand, this next reader, Leland Davis, gets much more specific with his answer:

The point of college? Class sorting.

A college degree is the stamp of the modern American middle class, the necessary badge of worthiness that one must have before any other consideration will be made. This helps keep the children of the middle class on the proper road in life—away from the trades and small-business, which might encourage unfortunate degrees of independence and inter-class solidarity, and towards the professions, whose professional standings and ethos encourage a proper deference to their betters.

I teach high school, so I see it happening. I went to grad school, and it happened to me.

This next reader, Ben, doesn’t have a college degree, and as a result he’s struggling to find a job:

I didn’t finish school, and what credits I do have are of the community college variety, so my “what value there is in college” opinions are completely those of an uninformed outsider. But I agree with pretty much every reason for going to college that I’ve read here. Yeah, it’s a path to better things and to ruin depending on planning and luck. It’s a way for employers to sort applicants and a way to encourage the habit of life-long debt, too.

There’s an element of it that I’m more interested in, though, and that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I think it’s impossible or at least very difficult to have a significant voice without it.

On one level, I find most media outlets reluctant to consider non-academic sources to be expert. I’ve seen professionals with a complete and total understanding of their field completely ignored in favor of a scientist with only a passing familiarity with it. This is probably more out of convenience (or sloth) than malice, but verifying a non-PHD’s bona fides is time consuming, especially compared to checking for abbreviations after their name.

Policy makers similarly ignore common voices in favor of anyone writing from behind a diploma. Want to comment on that regulation? Go for it. Want them to respond to it as a significant, individual thing? Want them to even read it rather than just checking you off as another pro or anti voice in their tallies? If you are a scientist or doctor it’s a sure thing, even if you don’t have specific expertise in that field. As a layman, you are either for or against and thrown into a pile labeled “uninformed public opinion.”

I’m looking into journalistic organizations with this in mind. I’m very curious to see how many journalists in top-flight outlets got there without going through the network-at-university-while-checking-the-degree-box route, if any. I’m especially interested to see those numbers when dealing with more high-end think-piece and analysis purveyors. I don’t know but I’m very interested to find out if there’s a diversity in media issue we don’t talk about much that has nothing to do with race and gender.