University of Utah's President's Circle in Salt Lake City, UT on Saturday November 03, 2018. (Photo by Curtis Lin | Daily Utah Chronicle)

 

For the vast majority of Americans, our estimated success in life and socially determined value is closely correlated with our entry and accomplishments in higher-education. At a young age we are conditioned throughout grade school to think, study, act and prepare for an inevitable completion of the college of our choosing. We’re told the unrelenting repetition of various state-sanctioned standardized tests fed to us throughout elementary and high school will adequately gauge our preparedness for college admittance the only feasible option for those interested in prosperity.

The poorly conceived but good-willed advice hardly stops there. Universities, we are told, provide a place where students, regardless of chosen discipline, don’t merely obtain the skills and education needed to function efficiently in their future careers, they learn how to think. As is the case in any application that requires effort, the fruit of one’s labor is directly proportional to the time spent in the orchard. The learned capacity to think critically about the world should be regarded as the single most worthwhile byproduct of the college machine.

Striving to find their place in the world, recent high school grads accept the urgency placed upon them to receive a college degree regardless of cost. While some might consider the value of learning how to think a significant reward of the college experience, the real impetus for most comes in the form of a diploma. This piece of paper that symbolizes four or more years of perseverance and garnered knowledge stands as a testament of their prudent choice to make the right decision. While stressing the importance of getting a degree, companies, and society on the whole, seems to be more interested in what the mark of competence a degree attaches to its recipient represents rather than field of study or scholastic achievements earned.

A U.S. Census Bureau study reported that in 2010, 62 percent of college graduates hold positions that require a bachelor’s degree, but only 27 percent work in fields that relate to their specific major. It’s this very reality that makes newly entering students consider the correlation between invested effort and career outcomes. This line of thinking contributes to the “C’s get degrees” adage — just more fuel to the point that regards a contemporary college education as just another commodity.

As a young kid, I too aspired to one day fulfill my obligation to become a contributing member of society by attending college after high school. This goal was frequently solidified by teachers and peers who all seemed to agree on the importance of higher education, and this theme was normally coupled with threats of what would surely be a dismal existence if I chose not to attend.

Another comment that quickly arose anytime college was mentioned to me was the cost. Almost as common as the feverish academic preparation students would engage in, were the lectures on how to tackle the enormous cost of one day attending. The potentiality of the scholarship route seemed as likely as a unicorn sighting for some of the less driven or academically typical. Joining the armed services in exchange for free tuition, or more candidly put, risking one’s potential physical and mental well-being for the chance to one day, maybe, attend college free of financial burden, was popularly entertained a wager that I personally chose to place after graduating.

A bumper sticker I saw one day during my sophomore year of high school offered another solution in the form of parental backing: “My daughter and my money go to UC Davis.” For those families with the financial means, and charitable guardians to do so, this offered a precious mercy to anyone fortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end. Rising tuition rates have furthered the struggle for college hopefuls, but exorbitant costs for college have always been the norm in this country with every utterance of the playfully tragic phrase “starving student” only contributing more to the acceptable nature of this serious dilemma.

Critics who claim a college education is merely a commodity place the overwhelming expense of attendance front and center in their arguments. They argue that places of higher education equate to streamlined factories where students will check appropriate boxes for completion before the next round comes to replace them. Given what the Census Bureau found in 2010, this seems to only further validate the point of the critics.

This puts the majority of the blame on the colleges themselves. If institutions are awarding degrees necessary for job placement that are otherwise just arbitrary pieces of paper, the opportunity to at least attempt to justify the exorbitant costs associated falls on the shoulders of the students. Paying for an education and then having to teach oneself the material due to an incompetent or apathetic teaching staff pressured to contribute to this in-and-out mechanism is frustrating and ridiculous.

It should be noted that, commodity or not, quality of life correlates significantly to annual income. Even with substantial student debt, degree holders make an average of $17,500 more per year more than those without a degree and they face significantly lower unemployment rates on the whole. These figures should upset the concern among critics that college students are simply wasting time earning meaningless degrees when they could be benefiting from earlier entry into the workforce. The rhetoric aimed at attacking higher education for its substantive value remains.

Because of the huge costs, it is hard to entirely justify college attendance as a worthwhile commodity, so many students regard the social aspects of college attendance as an important, ancillary defense as well. Those currently stirring the warm, stale remnants in their red solo cups and lamenting the critical importance of the “college experience” seem to understand that college can offer the opportunity to make important adult relationships through peer and advisor interactions.

A college education might very well be a commodity in the truest sense of the word, but the complexities attached deserve honest consideration. When determining the worth of a degree, the weight of responsibility must solely, and rather unfortunately, be placed on the inaction or effort of the student. Minimum effort will certainly check the boxes needed in many cases, and rote memorization will work wonders for barely scraping by. However, this behavior will only contribute to the problem and provide a fractional return on investment. Hunter Rawlings, former president of the Association of American Universities, made this point clear: “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.”

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

@TheChrony

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