Is College A Waste?

“You can lead a boy to college, but you cannot make him to think.” –Elbert Hubbard

If you listened to some of the headlines accompanying a recent news story, you might conclude that College is a waste of time, money, and resources for practically everyone involved. The three links above have, as their headlines:

  • $80,000 For Beer Pong? Report Shows College Students Learn Little During First Two Years (Besides Party Skills),
  • Report: First two years of college show small gains, and
  • One in Three College Students Is Coasting. This Is News?

Over the past 15 years, I’ve lived and worked at Colleges and Universities all over the country: Northwestern (my undergrad alma mater), University of Florida (my graduate school), University of Wisconsin, University of Arizona, University of Portland, and (currently) Lewis and Clark College. And while, when you think of college students, you might think of this:

you’re more likely to find them doing this:

and, perhaps surprisingly, about seven times more likely to actually find them doing this:

At least, that’s according to this study by Richard Arum et al., Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Here, for example, is a breakdown of how college students, on average, spend their time.

I can hear the outraged parents now. What?! Only 7% of their time — that’s 12 hours a week — studying?! How can you possibly learn everything you need to learn while only working 12 hours a week outside of class?

And then, of course, there are the statistics:

  • 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college.
  • 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.
  • And yet, they’re still graduating with an average GPA of 3.2!

(Story here.)

While my own experiences are, in fact, pretty consistent with what this data shows, the actual, personal interaction with hundreds upon hundreds of students has taught me that there’s a lot more to this story than “OMG, college kids aren’t learning!”

First off, there is tremendous pressure in this country on children, K-12, to go to college and graduate. That’s the expectation of what you need to do to become a successful adult in this country, so we teach, pointing to statistics like college grads out-earn non-grads by $1.17 million over a lifetime.

But in my experience, a quarter to a third of students in college aren’t intrinsically motivated to be there. The pre-med student who doesn’t want to disappoint her dad? The mechanical engineering major who’d rather be repairing automobiles? The junior with an undecided major who really wants to direct a funeral home?

My point is that, in my experience, pretty much every student — like 98% of them — is capable of working hard and doing well at whatever they apply themselves to, but only if they care. Otherwise, they’re going to work exactly as hard as they need to in order to get by.

I see students doing this in my classes sometimes, and I can’t get too mad, because I remember doing it, too, in the classes that I didn’t care about. You know what I’m talking about. Students blowing off class, studying, reading, etc., and then cramming in all-nighters before the exams, and then never thinking about the course again once they’ve finished it. You’ll get by like that, sure, but you don’t really learn. On the other hand, when/if you want to put in the hard work, the opportunities for success and extraordinary learning are plentiful at every college I’ve ever been to. But I don’t believe the solution is to make the indifferent students work harder.

The solution is to give them options that they want to choose. Often, for many students, that means delaying college, or not going altogether! But consider other options: the trades, manufacturing, maintenance, repair work, in fact all skilled blue-collar work is just as important — if not moreso — than white-collar work is for our society, and is a far more fulfilling career choice for many.

But that’s my experience, and my opinion based on it. What do you think? Do I have it all wrong? Is this data really a sign of the apocalypse; a sign of our societal decline? Or are we focusing on the wrong things, pigeon-holing our young adults into a career-path that may be all wrong for them?