I’m graduating from college in two weeks. So it was understandably disturbing to read a press release about a new report from the Pew Center which questioned the value of my past four years. The report questioned whether college is worth the cost, in terms of monetary payoff, intellectual achievement and character-building. One of the most obvious takeaways was how expensive higher education has become, but Americans also seemed to question whether a college education is really necessary — while simultaneously saying that they expected their children to aspire for just that.
The Pew Center did two surveys, one of 2,142 American adults and the other (in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education) of university presidents. Both had some rather depressing conclusions. The adults surveyed seemed to feel that the higher education system did not give them an education worth its extreme cost, and presidents expressed their dissatisfaction with students’ preparation when they arrived at college.
I realize that I’m in something of a unique situation. I’m fortunate to attend a school with excellent grant-based financial aid, so I won’t graduate with debt. This is not the case for most people. Three-quarters of Americans, according to the study, feel that college is too expensive, and I agree with them. This is despite the fact that Americans who have a college diploma are earning almost $20,000 more a year, on average, than counterparts who only have a high school degree. But student loan debt may cancel out this monetary benefit, at least in the years after graduation.
College graduates overwhelmingly agreed that their college education helped them grow intellectually. This I can attest to wholeheartedly. My writing and critical thinking skills have improved immeasureably over the past four years, as have my academic interests. The job market is, admittedly, difficult, and as I comb through websites looking for gainful employment, I’ve occasionally regretted my choice to major in religion, rather than a social science. But this has more implications for my graduate school choices, rather than how I view my undergraduate education as a whole.
Should an undergraduate education be such a widespread expectation for young adults? To be honest, I don’t have a clear answer. It was the right choice for me, but then again, I had the opportunity to attend an institution where I would graduate without debt. I still would have attended college even without this massive incentive, but the questions that this report asks are important. What exactly are universities’ missions? Are they places to foster intellectual capability and a strong work ethic, or should they be dedicated to promoting concrete, tangible skills?
I’m not graduating with many skills. But I grew up at college. I have a clear (or clearer) sense of what I want to do, where I’m going and many of the tools with which to succeed. Whether I’m the exception or the rule is hard to tell. But one thing is clear from this report: college needs to be less expensive. Especially since students seem (for the most part) to value their undergraduate intellectual growth.
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