Their View: College isn’t a commodity so stop treating it like one

Pick up any newspaper or magazine, and you’re likely to see some lament about the costs of college: “Too many degrees are a waste of money,” says the Economist; an education spawns “crippling” debt, says Salon; it “isn’t worth the money,” says USA Today.

I entered academia 52 years ago as a student of Latin and Greek expecting to encounter a placid sector of American life. Now, with a college degree replacing a high school diploma as the required ticket for a career, what used to be a quiet corner is now a favorite target of policymakers and pundits. Unfortunately, most commentary on the value of college is naive or completely misses the point of higher education.

Increasingly, people evaluate college in purely economic terms, reducing it to a commodity like a car or a house. How much does the average English major at University X earn 18 months after graduation? What is the average debt of University Y’s alumni? How much more does the average college grad earn over a lifetime compared with someone with only a high school diploma? (The current number appears to be about $1 million.) There is now a cottage industry built around such data.

Even on purely economic grounds, such questions, while not useless, begin with a false assumption. If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum. I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges. I have taught classes that my students made great through their efforts, and classes that my students made average or worse through their lack of effort. Though I would like to think I made a real contribution to my students’ learning, my role was not the sole or even the determining factor in the value of those courses to them.

The courses a student takes (or doesn’t take), the amount of work she does, the intellectual curiosity she exhibits, her participation in class, her focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational outcome than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet our national debate appears to believe that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.

The results of this kind of thinking are pernicious. Governors and legislators, as well as the press, treat colleges as purveyors of goods, students as consumers and degrees as products. Students get the message. If colleges are responsible for outcomes, then students can feel entitled to classes that do not push them too hard, to high grades and to material that does not challenge their assumptions or make them uncomfortable. Hence colleges too often cater to student demands for trigger warnings, “safe rooms” and cancellations of commencement speakers. When rating colleges, as everyone from the president to weekly magazines insists on doing nowadays, people use performance measures such as graduation rates and time to degree, as though those figures depended entirely upon the colleges and not at all upon the students.

This point is made succinctly by an apocryphal story about a university president who said this to new freshmen each year: “For those of you who have come here in order to get a degree: Congratulations, I have good news for you. I am giving you your degree today, and you can go home now. For those who came to get an education, welcome to four great years of learning at this university.”

So let’s acknowledge that college is not a commodity. It’s a challenging engagement in which both parties have to play an active and risk-taking role if its value is to be realized. Professors need to inspire, to prod, to irritate, to enable learning that can’t happen simply from reading books or watching films or surfing the Web. Good teachers “supply oxygen” to their classrooms, in the words of former Emory University president Bill Chace; they do not merely supply answers or facts. And good colleges provide lots of help to students who face challenges in completing their degrees in a reasonable amount of time.

But students need to make a similar commitment to breathe it in and be enlivened by it. They owe this not only to their teachers but also to themselves. After all, the decision to go to college is a decision to make an investment in the future, an investment of time and money. And for many, a college education is expensive. Students have to play a major role in making sure it’s money well spent.

Students need to apply themselves to the daunting task of using their minds — a much harder challenge than most people realize until they actually try to do it. To write a thoughtful, persuasive argument requires hard thinking and clear, cogent rhetoric. To research any moderately complex topic requires formulating good questions, critically examining lots of evidence, analyzing data and presenting one’s findings in succinct prose or scientific formulas.

The ultimate value of college is the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge, as do many students pursuing research in college. That, too, is a new sensation, and a very good one. Yes, it generally leads to higher career earnings. But it is the discovery itself that is life-changing.

To create what is, for most of us, that new sensation, you need a professor who provokes and a student who stops slumbering. It is the responsibility of colleges and universities to place students in environments that provide these opportunities. It is the responsibility of students to seize them. Genuine education is not a commodity; it is the awakening of a human being.