The value of college?

More and more educators and pundits (a term I use to describe those who comment with or without relevant experience) have questioned the value of college. In part, this seems related to the cost of tuition and other college-related costs (e.g., textbooks, living expenses). To me, the cost issue is very different from the position taken by others that college is not the best preparation for a successful career. I purposefully differentiate career here from a successful life, because I have not reviewed the position of anyone that argues against this larger goal. [An example of this second type of analysis.]

I assume that the k12 educators who raise this issue are not claiming that the k12 experience is adequate preparation for either a vocation or life. This I reject without further comment because such a position seems ridiculous. To be clear, I do not differentiate what some might describe as “trade schools” from other forms of higher education although I do recognize that these institutions do offer a more vocational focus than most college majors. I am guessing that the alternative most have in mind is some type of self-organized set of experiences often including mentoring of some type.

I spent my entire working life as a college professor so it probably comes as no surprise that I would defend the college experience. Included among my responsibilities was frequent responsibility for the introductory course in Psychology – a course a very large proportion of college students take early in their college careers. From these teaching experiences, I recognized that many students are not ready for college as a function of their motivation or independent learning skill. These are different issues which I assume require different solutions. More students should probably work for a time before committing to college. More students need additional assistance improving their reading skills and general academic backgrounds before taking on college courses. These are different issues from the perspective that college does not adequately prepare students for the world we now face.

Are students really aware of professions they are suited for?

Is the focus on a specific profession even a good long-term idea?

Does college provide a reasonable way to develop relevant skills and knowledge?

Let me state again that these are narrow goals and there is much to be said for a breadth of knowledge and skills and the awareness of culture and people that can inform vocational performance, but more importantly offer much more in term of life satisfaction.

To argue against for the present secondary students being ready for much of anything Twenge argues that this generation is maturing less quickly than previous cohorts. In her book, Jean Twenge describes the characteristics of the iGeneration – individuals from the U.S. born after the introduction of the iPhone (2007). She makes the effort to argue it was the cell phone and not other significant issues associated with this date (.e.g, the market crash of 2008)

My story

I think we are all prone to use anecdotal instances to interpret the world. Twenge does this is her book as she uses interviews she has conducted to give voice to the statistics from the large survey studies she cites. Researchers described this as a mixed-methods approach. Among the anecdotes we use to interpret life experiences is our own story. Here is mine.

I went to a state college as an 18-year old just of the farm. The 180 or so mile drive to the campus was the furthest I had been away from home at that time of my life. I had visited the campus previously and there were some unique aspects to my relationship with this particular institution. My parents were both graduates and I had visited the lab of my uncle who was also a graduate and a professor at the institution during my youth. Ironically, I eventually received my Ph.D. from this institution and was housed in the same building as a graduate student I had visited as a youth. My uncle was a botanist and I am an educational psychologist. The building was called “Old Botany” when I studied there.

I went to college to become a high school biology teacher and coach. This was what my life experiences at the time allowed me to imagine. When I tell my story, I include the following anecdote to explain how my world before college shaped what followed. Before I made a visit to the Iowa State University campus during the summer before my freshman year, I asked my high school guidance counselor for help in making contact with the appropriate campus department. He took the Iowa State catalog of his shelf and looked up biology. Iowa State had no biology department at the time, but did have a program in Biochemistry and Biophysics. So I booked an appointment with the biochemistry/biophysics department chair to set up my program of study. When I told the chair I wanted to become a high biology teacher, he said that they had met no one else with this goal. He sign me up for advanced chemistry, calculus, English composition, Introduction to Psychology, and a seminar in lipid metabolism. The quarter nearly did me in. I did meet my wife when we both switched out of our advanced chemistry course to move into the Intro to Chemistry course taken by most students. I don’t recall much about lipid metabolism, but I loved the Psychology course. It turned out that future biology teachers took a combination of courses from Zoology, Botany, Entomology, and Microbiology. By the time I graduated there was a biology department and the chair of this department became acquaintances and we published together when I was in graduate school.

As I took courses in a variety of areas through my sophomore year, I decided I was interested in educational research and intended to focus on psychology as a way to pursue this goal. My parents had no idea where this would lead and rather than talk me out of my ambition convinced me to add a biology major and a teaching certificate to my intended psychology major. They committed the money to cover a couple of extra summer sessions to make this combination workable. I really loved being a college student so year-round college was perfect for me. I did marry the woman I met as an advanced chemistry reject during this time and this also worked out very well.

There were so many things I could not have predicted as a high school senior that would not have happened should my life experiences at that time been the basis for my decisions. I would not have pursued what became an interest in educational research. I would not have focused on working in higher education rather than secondary education. I would not have taken a course in technical writing which more than my high school or college composition courses convinced me that I could write. I would not have taken the breadth of psychology courses that broadened my professional interests beyond teaching and continue to influence my professional interests to this day. I would not have met the people I met including my wife who shaped my present personal and vocational interests.

I don’t think my story is unique. I may reflect on my experiences including so many important education-based events I have not shared here more than most, but it is easy for me to see how my life course built on these early experiences. In no way, could I or would I have ended up in the same place making my own decisions early on. I needed the breadth of experiences I had and I needed to interact with the people that came at me without my solicitation.

Whether focused on vocation or life, college offers a great deal young people on their own are unable to appreciate or are likely to seek out. This may not be the case for those from wealthy families, but for the average kid with academic potential from a family with average means this seems certain to me. This situation (the wealthy have so many unrecognized advantages) seems so unfortunate as those without resources would benefit the most from the college experience.

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