Are students getting a degree, or an education? And who cares?

4 02 2012

I have to assume that Jonathan Zimmerman was being more than a little rhetorical when he titled his recent LA Times op-ed “Are college students learning?,” since he seems to harbor some serious doubts. Throughout the piece, Zimmerman brings up a few very relevant points that challenge our assumptions about the actual educational value of of a college degree:

First, it’s not clear that our institutions of higher education are doing that great of a job providing many students with a bona fide education. Zimmerman references a study that caused quite a stir back in early 2011; it found that a shockingly large number of students in undergraduate programs do not exhibit a significant increase in learning ability after two, and even four, years.

We take it for granted that skyrocketing tuition at least guarantees students a high-quality education. But we need to be a bit more critical, separating the strength of a degree in our credential-crazy nation from the knowledge the process of obtaining that degree is supposed to have imparted.

That brings us to Zimmerman’s second point: even if some colleges and universities are providing an a great educational value to students, how would we know? There’s really no way to assess the extent to which a given school improves the mind of a student before issuing him or her a diploma. College rankings, a popular means of selecting a college or university, are a poor indicator because they take myriad extraneous factors into account.

In his piece, Zimmerman seems to be suggesting a sort of standardized, nationwide system of assessment for college students. That may seem like a simple, effective mechanism for judging school performance, but it treats a symptom rather than the problem.

Once college became a prerequisite for a rewarding career rather than merely one of many options- a situation exacerbated by a flood of state and federal initiatives -the element of student self-selection was diminished. A self-motivated and intellectually curious student can still walk away from any campus with both a degree and an education. But many don’t fit that bill; they are happy to leave with just the degree.

While there’s certainly nothing wrong with those students attending college (and college should be affordable enough for anyone to give it a go), our politicians have done their best to eliminate the market mechanisms that might encourage prospective students to look at other options. Loans, grants, transfer payments to universities- they all sound great to today’s students, but they push higher education ever further out of reach for the next generation.

This is a problem decades in the making, and one that is difficult to address without seeming both elitist or anti-intellectual. Like the related tuition bubble, however, the public is slowly but surely starting to take notice- and we’re poised for positive change, so long as we stop turning towards politicians to solve a problem they helped create in the first place.

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