There has been a growing debate about the value of a college education. That debate takes two basic forms. The most prominent is an argument that the rising costs of higher education are making college years less cost-effective–that what you get really isn’t worth what you pay. There is also a growing “movement” of young people who decide to drop out to pursue more “creative” endeavors, who want to emulate folks like Bill Gates and other wildly successful internet entrepreneurs who made their billions without dilly-dallying around a college campus for four long years. (Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about several of them.)
The young people who are impatient to be the next Big Thing have always been around. The truly gifted among them will be successful; the others will find jobs or return to school or do whatever it is that such young folks have always done. College affordability, on the other hand, is a genuine issue, and requires our attention (and probably some unwelcome-to-college-administrators interventions).
I don’t claim to know what measures to take to make higher education more affordable. But I do know that we need to preface that discussion with one that addresses what trial lawyers like to call “a preliminary question.”
Preliminary questions are those we need to answer before we can make sense of the answers to subsequent questions. And mine are deceptively simple: what is education? What is it for? How does it differ from job training?
This question is as applicable to elementary and high schools as it is to college, and the answers will have clear policy implications. If–as many parents seem to believe–K-12 education is a consumer good, something one gives ones children in order to advantage them in the marketplace , then sending Junior to a private “academy” may make sense–at least, so long as that private institution provides accurate science and history lessons. If, however, education also has a public dimension, if it includes an emphasis on citizenship and the forging of a unified polity from a diverse population, it may need to be delivered by a public institution.
When we get to the question of university education, differentiating between job training and education becomes much more important, because those are two very different missions, and the conflation of them is in large part responsible for the current woes of academia. In my (admittedly jaundiced) view, there are far too many students on university campuses who really belong at a job-training institution. They have been told that their employment prospects require a diploma, and they are on campus to acquire that credential. They have zero interest in what great minds have pondered in the past, what history might teach us, what we have learned about human interaction and all the other intellectual goods acquisition of which was once the purpose of the university.
Faculty spend far too much time in campus meetings assessing whether the courses we offer will lead to employment and far too little time considering whether those same courses will lead to enlightenment.
If we separated out the institutions offering a credential from the ones offering an education, it would be much easier to assess cost-effectiveness of the former, and it would send a clear message to students considering attendance at the latter.
Mission clarity is an important element of assessment–if you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, it’s hard to determine whether you’ve accomplished it. Until our institutions of higher education can answer those preliminary questions—until they decide whether they want to be vocational schools or educational venues–arguments about cost and efficacy will continue.