Despite 1.2 trillion dollars held in collective student debt, the overall answer to attending college is still yes. The Hamilton Project has a fun online widget that allows you compare your annual income by degree and major (I’m trying not to be envious of my engineering and chemistry friends). Check it out here.
But college today is different than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and because of that we need to think differently about why individuals go to college, when they go, and what they should expect. Thirty years ago, going to school (be it elementary, high school, or under graduate) was the best source of information. This is particularly true at the undergraduate level, and what most people think of when they talk about ‘going to college.’ Aside from the nearest public library, there were few resources for me to learn what a neuron was and how it functioned (and for anyone that has ever been to Wooster, Ohio, where I grew up, even getting that information from the public library was a far shot). College provided access to advanced information.
But today information is ubiquitous – and can be obtained almost anywhere for free: Wikipedia, the Khan Academy, and yes from colleges and universities that are developing MOOCS (massive, open, online courses). So today going to school to get information is not worth the value, per se. I’ve taught literally hundreds of students physiology each year, and at times I myself used free resources and movies online that are of high-quality and do a great job explaining how the kidney works, or how gas laws govern lung function.
Getting my students to use this new information was different – and something they could not achieve by reading the book or just attending my lecture. It was in lab sections or in small discussion groups where we read case studies of individuals with kidney malfunction and discussed how understanding gas law would provide a pathway for treatment that students learned how to apply this information.
When you have massive amounts of information at your disposal, you have a new challenge: Organizing, analyzing, and interpreting that information in a useful and meaningful way. This is perhaps the hallmark of what colleges and universities can still provide to students. And despite what we may want to believe, understanding how to interpret information in our world is not easy and native. Spend time with a two year old who believes that all four-legged creatures are dogs, and you’ll realize that knowing how to organize and categorize information is not easy. Nor is teaching it. It takes time, and experience.
College today isn’t so much about facts, but learning what to do with those facts. College is where students develop and perfect their research and analytical skills – no matter what their major is (If you think English and writing don’t require those skills, simply read John Irving’s Until I Find You, and realize he did extensive research on tattoos, and had to integrate it meaningfully and entertainingly in order to write his book). Going to college today doesn’t necessarily give you a job, but instead gives you the skills to do many jobs, no matter what you studied.