Reporter's Notebook

What's the Point of College?
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Readers debate the question and related ones. (To chime in, please email hello@theatlantic.com.) “What’s the point of college?” was also the crux of the conversation during the closing session of our Education Summit:

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What's the Point of College? Cont'd

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.

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.

To take your mind off politics, at least politics of the national-election variety, let’s take a look back on some of the oddities of the American college-admissions process, for which millions of families are gearing up right now.

Back in 2001, the Atlantic’s September issue featured a big story I had done, called “The Early-Decision Racket.” It was about the way elite-college admissions had been transformed, and warped, through the Faustian bargain of the “early decision” system. This is the arrangement in which a student’s chance of getting into a selective college goes up, but the student’s ability to choose another college, or bargain and comparison-shop for better financial-aid deals, goes away.

(By the way: that article got a lot of attention during the first ten days of September, 2001. Then on September 11 … )

A note that just arrived is an excuse for re-posting a link to that article, and for a reminder of how distorting the whole admissions process has become. Here’s the letter:

Today, I came across your article " The Early-Decision Racket" from September 2001 and, though it took lot of patience in this twitter crazed short attention span mind to read, it might as well have been written yesterday in September 2017. Amazing that after 16 yrs, an article can still be so fresh as if time stopped.

I wanted to share a story from my family and it fits the pattern perfectly.

My niece is a senior at [a prestigious private school]. Super smart kid with 3.98/4 GPA, SAT score in 1560/1600, loaded with extra-curriculars, Mayor's youth council chairperson, community service, UN youth assembly , etc. etc.... You get the picture.

Her mom is a wealthy [professional].

I have been working with my niece to help with college admission process.   She is super crazy about [some Ivy League and East Coast schools]. Wants to get into Penn but is torn about Georgetown and its Early Action program.  Has done summer courses at Duke but doesn’t want to apply there. Is also interested in Northwestern U. [Also dealing with Tulane.]

Every word of your article was like reading my own current experience in this  " ginned up marketing game played to achieve top ranks through selectivity and yields". The ultimate game is get that spigot running and build endowment wealth….

Colleges and parents are both willing players in the game

Some of the contributing factors

(1) More students realizing that their best shot at Ivy ranked college is EA or ED and taking that chance

(2) More Asian-Americans are coming of age. Ultra-competitive kids born to very educated parents (with both having college degrees) who migrated to US in the 90s and afterwards during the technology boom.