Essay on Why Is College Important to Society

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[ One of the greatest debates of our time is the topic of college education: specifically, who should go to college and how important it is to attend. O’Halloran (2018) states, “Given the crises that public higher education is currently facing, we are in desperate need of creative solutions” (p. 33). Some contend that too many people are going to college, while others believe not enough are going to college. Nemko (n.d.) reports that “According to the U.S. Department of Education, if you graduated in the bottom 40 percent of your high school class and went to college, 76 of 100 won’t earn a diploma, even if given 8 1/2 years” (para. 2). “Yet,” he reminds us, “colleges admit and take the money from hundreds of thousands of such students each year!” Murray (2015/2008) reports that “about a third of all those who entered college hoping for a B.A. will leave without one.” According to Hrabowski (2015), “fewer than 10 percent of Americans from the lowest income quartile have earned a college degree by age 24, compared to 80 percent of those in the top quartile” (p.261). The subject is an important one, and one about which many have something to say, and in this essay, I will present the perspectives of several experts and commentators in the field.

Bluedorn and Bluedorn (2003) point out that “College is not the classical way to learn a livelihood” (p. 443). They go on to inform us that college used to be attended only by a small minority of the population. Most were taught a trade by their father or through an apprenticeship, or, if the training involved learning from books, they were taught by a private tutor. Murray (2015/2008) likewise points out that before the mid-20th century, the B.A. was not considered the standard of respectability and success as it is today. Furthermore, according to Bluedorn and Bluedorn, “college today is what high school was a century ago—or less, in some ways.” In other words, a person than with a high school education has as much or more of an education as a person today with a college education. Bluedorn and Bluedorn believe that an important purpose of K-12 schooling should be to teach children how to teach themselves, all throughout their lives. Anything missed in primary and secondary education can be learned independently later on—a liberal arts education is not necessary. Murray (2015/2008) expresses a similar idea when he argues for a body of core knowledge to be taught to all American youth in elementary and middle school, rendering a liberal arts education in college unnecessary.

Saying “too many people are going to college” is not the same as saying that the average student does not need to know about history, science, and great works of art, music, and literature. They do need to know—and to know more than they are currently learning. So let’s teach it to them, but let’s not wait for college to do it. Liberal education in college means taking on the tough stuff. (p. 237)

Murray argues that college-level liberal arts material is so academically rigorous that only those in the top ten percent of academic ability are able to both engage and enjoy it. Those below the 90th percentile, roughly, may be able to take on the stuff of a liberal arts college degree, but probably won’t enjoy it.

However, is it more economically beneficial to attend college or not attend college? While the conventional wisdom of our day has it that those with bachelor’s degrees typically earn more than those without them, Murray makes the case that it is often better for an individual to pursue something they are very good at, outside of college, rather than pursue something they are mediocre at, in college. He states, “The income for the top people in a wide variety of occupations that do not require a college degree is higher than the average income for many occupations that require a B.A.” (p. 247). Nemko (n.d.) comes down hard on society’s demand that everyone attend college, pointing out flaws in the oft-cited statistic that those people with B.A. earn more than their non-B.A.-holding peers. To begin with, he contends that it is a slanted statistic, since those who attend college are “brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections” (para. 4) in the first place—which were those being at least some of the factors that lead to them attending college—so they probably would have earned more anyway. In addition, while the supply of college graduates is increasing, the demand for them is decreasing. Furthermore, the statistic does not even cover the concern of those who attend college yet fail to graduate. Nemko states,

According to the U.S. Department of Education, if you graduated in the bottom 40 percent of your high school class and went to college, 76 of 100 won’t earn a diploma, even if given 8 1/2 years. Yet colleges admit and take the money from hundreds of thousands of such students each year! (para. 2)

Having gained little knowledge that is of practical help to them, he argues, almost most of these dropouts obtain from higher education is “a mountain of debt” (para. 3). Along that line, Bluedorn and Bluedorn contend that college is not worth the tremendous monetary cost, and “There may be a better investment of your time and money” (p. 443). Furthermore, Nemko reminds us that “Colleges are businesses” (para. 7), and their primary goal is to make money. They still make money even if a student doesn’t graduate. “Colleges make money whether or not a student learns, whether or not she graduates, and whether or not he finds good employment” (para. 12).

Also, Nemko makes the case that colleges do a poor job of fulfilling what they are meant to do: educate students and prepare them for the real world.

In the definitive Your First College Year nationwide survey conducted by UCLA researchers (data collected in 2005, reported in 2007) only 16.4 percent of students were very satisfied with the overall quality of instruction they received and 28.2 percent were neutral, dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied. A follow-up survey of seniors found that 37% percent reported being “frequently bored in class” up from 27.5 percent as freshmen. (para. 8)…

A 2006 study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to do such basic tasks as interpreting a table about exercise and blood pressure, understanding the arguments of newspaper editorials, or comparing credit card offers. Almost 20 percent of seniors had only basic quantitative skills. For example, the students could not estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station. (para. 9)

Nemko points out that, unlike any other industry, universities are allowed to cheat the public by making boatloads of money with little government oversight or accountability while failing to properly provide the service they promise to provide.

Year after year, colleges turn out millions of defective products: students who drop out or graduate with far too little benefit for the time and money spent. Yet, not only do the colleges escape punishment, they’re rewarded with ever greater taxpayer-funded student grants and loans, which allow colleges to raise their tuitions yet higher. (para. 10).

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Bluedorn and Bluedorn (2001) also argue that “College degrees don’t mean much anymore.” Often, college graduates lack practical knowledge about the real world, requiring the companies that hire them to put a great deal of resources into necessary training. What matters is not whether someone has a college degree, but whether he “actually knows what he’s talking about, understands what he’s doing, and can apply it in the real world” (p. 443). They also see a collapse of formal postsecondary education due to the dawn of the Internet era. The Internet has made it even easier for a person to teach him- or herself. Murray (2015/2008) makes a similar point when he shows the Internet to be a major factor in how “for learning how to make a living, the four-year brick-and-mortar residential college is increasingly obsolete” (pp. 241-242).

So, is it really necessary for everybody to attend college? Murray contends that the “everybody should go to college” mantra is only hurting those who cannot go or who fail when they do go. He states, “As long as it remains taboo to acknowledge that college is intellectually too demanding for most young people, we will continue to create crazily unrealistic expectations among the next generation” (p. 251). Before the mid-1900s, he argues, there were a number of socially acceptable reasons for not attending college. But starting around that time,

The acceptable excuses for not going to college have dried up. The more people who go to college, the more stigmatizing the failure to complete college becomes. Today, if you do not get a B.A., many people assume it is because you are too dumb or too lazy. And all this is because of a degree that seldom has an interpretable substantive meaning. (p. 253)

His conclusion concisely sums up his own arguments as well as those of others I have quoted who critique modern higher education and doubt the necessity of most people attending college:

Imagine that America had no system of postsecondary education and you were made a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. Ask yourself what you would think if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal:

First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it.

What I have just described is the system that we have in place. There must be a better way. (p. 253).

There are also a number of voices who oppose the view that too many people are going to college. While they concede that American higher education is by no means perfect, college is still a great option for students if they choose the right institution for them. Marks (2015), for example, claims that the fact that college is not worth it in every case does not mean that too many people are attending college. Just because “too many students are unprepared for college” and “too many students are unprepared for college,” it does not follow that too many are attending. An important point he makes is that if employers actually do actually use a college education as a screening test (i.e., only interview candidates with bachelor’s degrees or higher)—a claim that Murray makes outright—that is all the more reason to encourage college attendance. While Murray makes the point that the B.A. screening test demonstrates how broken our system is, Marks takes the obvious pragmatic approach, saying that whether this is a good thing or not, it is something we have to deal with—it is all the more reason to obtain a college degree.

O’Halloran (2018) directly criticizes many of Murray’s points. First of all, she contends that—contrary to what Murray implies—people are not “stuck at certain skill levels for their whole lives” (p. 34). Much of Murray’s reasoning is based on the presumption that if an individual falls at a certain percentile of skill or ability, around the time of their graduation from high school, they are locked in for the rest of their lives. “Those who believe that human beings are capable of learning new skills and sharpening old ones and that this is in fact the entire purpose of education should take offense at this notion” (p. 34). She takes exception to the idea that Murray seems to hold, that academic ability cannot be simplified to a “measurable quality.” There are so many factors and personal skills involved in succeeding in college that it would be very hard to determine that one person has low academic ability (and thus should not go to college) while another has high academic ability (and should attend college). However, it seems to me that O’Halloran and Murray’s differences on this point may be due to divergent concepts of academic ability. While O’Halloran apparently defines it as “the skills required for success in college, which include listening, reading, writing, memorization, mathematics, interpersonal communication, time management, self-advocacy, and test-taking—among others,” what Murray means by “academic ability” seems to be more along the lines of raw intelligence. According to O’Halloran, anyone can go to college and earn a liberal arts degree; college itself can aid in those skill areas in which a given student is weak—that is a key role of college.

Murray’s The second major point of Murray’s that O’Halloran takes exception to is his idea of teaching all primary students a body of core cultural knowledge. She suggests that this core knowledge amounts to a whitewashed, sugar-coated view of American history, in which the only perspective given is that of the white oppressors who took over the continent. However, I counter that even if one can infer all that from Murray’s brief summary of his idea in his essay, one has not refuted the essence of his idea, only his application of it. The essence of his plan is to give elementary and middle school children a foundational liberal arts education, and the only one they will ever need—except for the more academically adept who want to pursue this in college. O’Halloran goes on to argue,

Contrary to Murray’s vision of elementary and middle school students simply memorizing a government-approved Core Knowledge curriculum, liberal education fundamentally entails critical thinking: the ability to engage with multiple conflicting views, to treat accepted wisdom skeptically and to form one’s own opinion. How anyone could believe that rote memorization in middle school is an acceptable substitute for critical thinking at the college level is, frankly, beyond me. (p. 35).

It is doubtful that Murray would say he simply wants to promote rote memorization instead of critical thinking for K-8 students. He would most likely say that O’Halloran has misunderstood his proposal. However, even if this were not the case, O’Halloran would be failing to address the similar, but more thoroughly developed, ideas of Bluedorn and Bluedorn (2001), who penned a 600-plus-page book on how homeschool parents can teach their children the liberal arts—focusing in large part how to think for themselves and teach themselves.

In conclusion, Murray, Nemko, and Bluedorn and Bluedorn are of the view that college is not all it’s cracked up to be. Most people attending college are doing so unnecessarily, and they often end up in worse shape, especially financially, as a result. There are quite a number of viable, less expensive alternatives. On the other hand, Marks points out that there are many students who decide not to attend college when it actually would have been better for them to attend. And O’Halloran, while she makes many helpful points in her critique of Murray, largely misses the thrust of his argument because she gets caught up in the details.

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