Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Washington Post: Why We Are Looking at the ‘Value’ of College All Wrong, by Christopher B. Nelson (President, St. John's College):
As college admission deadlines loom, new lists and rankings proliferate along with reports questioning the “value” of a college education. The obsession with quantification is rooted in a habit of applying economic categories to everything. Yet education and economics are essentially incompatible. The lens of economics distorts our judgment about the true worth of higher education. ...
[T]he idea that a college or university is a purveyor of information is a misplaced economic metaphor. Education is not information transfer. The educated college graduate is not simply the same person who matriculated four years earlier with more information or new skills. The educated graduate is a different person—one who has developed the innate human capacity for learning, to the point of controlling it. The educated graduate is an independent learner, able to seek out answers to whatever questions arise, and able to direct his or her own learning in accordance with the challenges that life presents in the circumstances of his or her own life.
The maturation of the student—not information transfer—is the real purpose of colleges and universities. Of course, information transfer occurs during this process. One cannot become a master of one’s own learning without learning something. But information transfer is a corollary of the maturation process, not its primary purpose. This is why assessment procedures that depend too much on quantitative measures of information transfer miss the mark. It is entirely possible for an institution to focus successfully on scoring high in rankings for information transfer while simultaneously failing to promote the maturation process that leads to independent learning.
We need to move away from easy assessments that miss the point to more difficult assessments that try to get at the maturation process. The Gallup-Purdue Index Report entitled Great Jobs, Great Lives found six crucial factors linking the college experience to success at work and overall well-being in the long term:
- at least one teacher who made learning exciting
- personal concern of teachers for students
- finding a mentor
- working on a long-term project for at least one semester
- opportunities to put classroom learning into practice through internships or jobs
- rich extracurricular activities
We should turn all our ingenuity toward measuring factors like these, difficult as that task might be, and use these results to push back against easy assessments based on the categories of economics. Unless we stop taking the easy way, unless we get past our habit of interpreting everything in economic terms, we will never grasp the true value of a college education.