Reflections on the Goal of College

Yesterday’s “Afternoon Inquisition” on Skepchick brought up a very interesting topic that I had relegated to the back-burner of my mind for some time now. MasalaSkeptic asked, “Is college worth it? What are the factors that make it worthwhile?” That’s a huge question with lots of individualized answers.

Obviously, I’m interested in working in an academic field, so college was a necessity to that goal. However, that is a specialized case. It seems that for many college students, their college major is only tangentially, if at all, related to their eventual job or career. Prevailing wisdom is that you need a college degree to get a job, but also that your GPA matters much less than real-world experience. Some say that college is a great place to get that real-world experience, and I agree. But colleges are structured to emphasize classwork and grades more than anything. So where is the disconnect?

When I was a senior at a small, four-year, residential, private, liberal arts institution, I was honored to be a student member of the Curriculum Development Committee. I learned quite a lot about how academic catalogs and degree programs are built and modified. I even co-authored, with another student, the degree requirements for the Bachelor of Science in Physics, gearing it for physics majors who were interested in applying for graduate programs with the hope that it would prepare them for the challenges ahead. I designed my own curriculum to be heavily science and math-based, but also enjoyed immensely the humanities and arts classes that I took for my distribution requirements. After all, it was a liberal arts college and that’s what you do, you get a well-rounded education. It probably helped that I saved most of my humanities classes for senior year, when I was mentally a bit more mature and able to appreciate learning about wide-ranging and unfamiliar topics. (And not worry about my grades, at least once grad school applications were in.) So when the general topic of the goal of a college education came up in committee meetings, I was in agreement with the sentiment that a liberal arts education was the way to go, that learning for the sake of learning was important for all students. Just getting a degree to get a job was unpleasantly utilitarian, although I think I was more strongly in favor of spending more time in major classes and less time in distribution requirements than most of the other committee members.

One of my other functions at that college, in my sophomore and junior years, was as a Student Academic Resource, or STAR. The STARs lived in the freshman dorms and were part of the Resident Life staff, but we focused on academic issues. We put on various educational programs and were the go-to people when freshmen needed to find a tutor or get academic advice. We also worked closely with those students who were in danger of failing after their first semester. That last responsibility had a huge intellectual and emotional impact on me, especially when my first batch of students all dropped out, despite my efforts. Although each case was different, there was a common thread through some of those students, and many that stayed on, where they entered college because of parental pressure, with the hopes of getting a degree to get a job. But they were not really “ready” for college just yet. Some of those students got in touch with me years later to tell me they had gone back to college and were doing well, and that makes me so happy, and confirms my suspicions that it was just the wrong time for them. So in college, my life was split between the nerds who loved learning for learning’s sake, and the students with the job-oriented mindset who just didn’t handle college at all their first time around, all in a little cocoon of a tiny, liberal arts institution.

Needless to say at this point after reading my setup, my views have changed. I’m now a graduate student at a larger university, and I still stay plugged into the classroom mindset through some of my friends who are undergraduates. I see some of the same mindset that I had in college, that being to get your degree with a career goal in mind, but love the learning and life experiences along the way. And I am beginning to appreciate the “get the degree to get the job” mindset a bit more, although it frustrates me sometimes as a tutor and TA to be faced with “I just want to get a good grade because I need this class to graduate.” So it makes me wonder, are colleges and universities doing students a disservice by forcing them to take on a well-rounded, four-year, expensive education? I used to think not, but now I’m not so sure. It may be the creeping college loans of my own, or becoming more aware that most people learn from experiences more than they learn from the classroom. If it is true that some kind of college degree is required to get a satisfying job, then why do colleges expect that all students will be of the mindset of academics? How can individual professors cope with the majority of their intro classes being full of students who are “getting the grade to get out” and still make it a rewarding experience for themselves and for the students? Are colleges and universities of the wrong mindset, and can the system be changed to accommodate a variety of students?

Big questions, no definite answers. But I can see that my own changing opinions are based on new observations and will reflect how I teach in the future.

3 comments for “Reflections on the Goal of College

  1. Mark
    March 2, 2009 at 21:46

    Excellent post Nichole. As I approach my 20 year college reunion, I too have had many changes in the view/value of a college education. As an undergrad I started as a Biology major but graduated with a business degree. Very helpful for having fun but so generic they are a dime-a-dozen; however, deep inside, I desperately wanted to be a physics/astronomy major. Unfortunately, I had difficulty with those classes at that time and had a lot of push from parents to pursue a degree with a purpose, meaning biology=pre-med, physics=academia=Phd and working at a fast food restaurant.
    Although I don’t have a graduate degree, I have two undergraduate degrees, and have a great job. So, a degree for the purpose of obtaining a job does have its value, all be it materialistic and superficial.
    I totally agree that their are people who should wait to attend college. There are so many things people can do prior to college that will help them not only mature but even off-set the cost.
    I am really interested in hearing more of your thoughts on this matter. In turn, I will keep you posted as I begin my graduate degree (in two years) in Astronomy. Yes, I will make it and although it will not guide or make my primary career, I will achieve it for myself and for a post-retirement career.
    I always tell my son that college is important but it should be for something you feel passionate about, be that math, science or basket weaving. Just love what you are pursuing.

  2. Nicole
    March 2, 2009 at 21:57

    Thanks, Mark. Yes, my mom always said she’d support whatever I chose to do in school, even if it was underwater basketweaving. I guess baskets don’t have a good academic rap?

    Best of luck with working on your degree!

  3. March 19, 2010 at 12:30

    Awesome post. I don’t suppose you’d be against it if I was to add your site to my link exchange directory?

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