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 “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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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.

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.

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.

It’s a question my colleague Steve Clemons is planning to discuss with a panel of experts at The Atlantic’s Education Summit next week, so to get some fodder for the discussion, I posed the question to some of our core readers in TAD, a discussion group created a few months ago by members of TNC’s old Horde.

Here are two quick answers, first from Nick: “The best thing I got out of college was having my opinions tested, learning how to justify them if possible, or correct them if I couldn’t justify them.” Reader Jim looks on the social side:

I’d say the point of college, now—and certainly a part I benefited from—is the exposure to people from a variety of walks of life. Ideally, you learn about the differences in people and come to recognize them as people despite those differences.

This reader touches on both themes:

College was probably the best time in my life (so far). I would say the benefit was twofold: growing intellectually and growing socially. A job was not on my mind as I went through college (aside from my mom's constant “Don’t you want to be a lawyer/doctor?”), so I was really focused on learning. As part of the honors program, I was given the opportunity to take small seminar classes where the students took a strong role in shaping and charting the discussion, and I undertook a serious research project clocking in at a whopping 117 pages. Will that knowledge of apocalyptic texts ever come in handy again? Probably not. But the skills gained along the way in critical thinking, writing, and discussion certainly made me a better citizen.

As far as my social life, I have never and will never be a party person. So that wasn’t my college experience. But I made some great friends from different backgrounds and formed friendships that I might not have otherwise. And my friends from college remain my closest friend circles today (sorry TADbros).

So I think viewing college as simply a means to an end is silly, although probably an unfortunate part of reality.

More on that reality from Katt:

The point of college is to put as many people into debt as possible so they have to settle for a life of mediocrity and being wage slaves to our capitalist overlords.

P.S. I am just bitter because I went to art school. Don’t send your kids to art school.

This reader would probably agree:

What’s the point of college? In the 21st century? Vocational training, credentialism, and resume-sorting disguised as “education.” Many jobs that in no way need a college education require one. It is a replacement for job training, which has been put to pasture by shareholder demand and the general libertarian attitude of employers towards employees. (See the work of Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli for how employers across the spectrum have cut training.)

Bourree interviewed Cappelli last year on the “danger of picking a major based on where the jobs are.” Cappelli told her in a subsequent piece: “There is a long literature in psychology showing that job performance and college grades are poorly related. It is remarkable how frequently companies rely on hiring criteria for which there is no evidence of it working.” Back to our reader:

Sent by another reader

[A college education] also provides cover from an otherwise swelling unemployment rate for young adults. Resume-sorting is not just accomplished by asking “does the applicant have a college degree or not,” but also sorting by major, GPA, institution, etc. Direct applicability of major is ever more important as actual job training vanishes. GPA is a lazy correlation of equating academic prowess (or strategic choice of easy classes) with professional aptitude.

Institutional sorting is how elite employers remain elite. (I’ve noted in perusing the CVs of The Atlantic’s staff that even attending something outside of the Top 15 or so colleges and universities in USNWR makes one something of an outlier. [CB:👋])

A college education is also a conduit for separating people from their money and/or money they borrow. Student loans are, at their basest form, a regressive taxation on socioeconomic mobility. How’s that for Kafkaesque?

In all of this, the classical purpose of college—to acquire deep knowledge, advanced analytical, rhetorical, and writing skills, and a deeper appreciation of the world around you—is antiquated and scorned.

This next reader relates to the “what’s the point?” question as a parent:

Funny you ask, since we are prepping our 18-year-old daughter for her freshman year this fall.

Some remaining thoughts from readers on the question:

This summer I accompanied my mother to her 65th college reunion. Part of the weekend’s program was a video about the Cornell University Class of 1950, the first class that came in with a large supply of veterans on the G.I. Bill. The film had some inspiring cameos about veterans who would never have gotten to college otherwise and the lives they made for themselves as a result. I wonder if our preoccupation with credentialism and the faith in the bachelor’s degree as a gateway to success and wealth is a legacy of that postwar crop of veterans.

Another reader:

I have observed the 20-year trend toward arbitrarily requiring college degrees for jobs that do not truly need them.  I believe this goes hand-in-hand with the growth of Human Resources as a profession.

Several readers have smart takes on this question:

Marxian Economics provides an interesting view of the “value” of any degree. The profits of a company can be divided into two parts: the amount that’s needed to sustain production, and the surplus. Training employees does not directly result in production for a company, which means it must come from the surplus. But the company has many other things they want to spend the surplus on, so they would prefer if their workers were able to do a job from Day One with no training. That means the bill for education/training falls on the individual or the state—which the company also doesn’t want to pay. That’s a different problem.

The readers before me eloquently argued that universities currently have a monopoly on verification for skills; this is sadly true. Even more distressing is the fact that universities operate as companies themselves. Students must pay more money than the value of the education they receive or the system will crash, which is why—I hazard a guess here—they’re forced to take unrelated classes, instead of being speedily prepared for a career.

Now, I learned the basics of this theory from a university lecture, but I haven’t payed a penny.

Mary Alice McCarthy wrote a piece for us declaring “America: Abandon Your Reverence for the Bachelor’s Degree.” A reader quotes her:

“Undergraduates are supposed to get a general education that will prepare them for training, which they will presumably get once they land a job or go to graduate school.” Au contraire:

Companies simply haven’t invested much in training their workers. In 1979, young workers got an average of 2.5 weeks of training a year. While data is not easy to come by, around 1995, several surveys of employers found that the average amount of training workers received per year was just under 11 hours, and the most common topic was workplace safety — not building new skills. By 2011, an Accenture study showed that only about a fifth of employees reported getting on-the-job training from their employers over the past five years.

Hence the great push for ever-more vocational or job-oriented college degrees. The task of training has been foisted upon higher education.

And another reader is very skeptical of the value of higher ed these days:

The Bachelor’s degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma. No one is impressed if you have one. But if you don’t have one, they'll toss your resume aside. Colleges and universities know this, which is how they can get away with making you take classes you know you’ll never need. That’s fine for high school. But a college student shouldn’t be forced to take a sociology course or two years of foreign language, especially when he’s paying tens of thousands of dollars per year in tuition.

A Bachelor’s degree is also a convenient way for certain professions to limit their applicant pool.