Today I ran across an article from the May 2, 2008 Chronicle of Higher Education (hat tip) that caused me to wonder about the value of a college education in today’s society. The article, by career counselor and education consultant Marty Nemko, is entitled “America’s Most Overrated Product: The Bachelor’s Degree.”
Here are some the most salient points in Nemko’s essay:
1. Today’s college students are woefully unprepared.
2. The benefit one receives from a college education does not equal the six-figures of tuition that one must pay to receive that education.
3. It is misleading to suggest that college graduates earn more than college dropouts.
4. The advantage that college graduates have on the job market is eroding.
5. Colleges are businesses. They accept who are unprepared in order to take their tuition money. 6. Colleges, and especially universities, tend to reward research and not teaching. As a result the student suffers.
7. Literacy among college graduates is declining. Many cannot think critically, write clearly, or solve basic problems.
8. Colleges should be held accountable for all of these problems. (And Nemko offers several suggestions in the article).
Nemko concludes that college is not for everyone. His article challenges the close relationship between the pursuit of a college degree and the pursuit of the American Dream.
It strikes me that Philip Vickers Fithian might offer a critique of college life that differs slightly from Nemko’s analysis. Fithian, or for that matter any first generation college student in American history, reminds us that higher education, especially in its modern form, can result in estrangement. It pulls us away from roots, the communities that shaped us, and the family connections that sustain us through the course of life (think of senior citizens placed in nursing homes because there is no one to care for them when their children live hundreds of miles away pursuing the vocational outworking of their college education). Fithian, like most modern Americans, always chose the “way of improvement” over “home,” but he also suffered the psychological and moral consequences of that decision. Unlike most of us, he realized this. He always hoped that the Way of Improvement Leads Home.
Or consider these quotes about education from Kentucky agrarian Wendell Berry:
Education creates “a powerful class of itinerant professional vandals” who are “now pillaging the country and laying it waste.”
Many of these professionals have been educated, at considerable public expense, in colleges or universities that had originally a clear mandate to serve localities or regions-to receive the daughters and sons of their region, educate them, and send them home again to serve and strengthen their communities. The outcome shows, I think, that they have generally betrayed this mandate, having worked instead to uproot the best brains and talents, to direct them away from home into exploitative careers in one or another of the professions, and so to make them predators of communities and homelands, their own as well as other people’s.
According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession. And this norm is institutionalized not in great communal stories, but in the education system. The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance that it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to say the future, of the child.… The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.