Is College Worth It?

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me (now closed) on on this date.

In “America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree,” Marty Nemko argues, “College is a wise choice for far fewer people than are currently encouraged to consider it.” Looking at my plagiarism rate from last semester and considering the number of students at George Mason University who fail the mandatory History 100 survey simply because they do not show up or turn in their work, I have to admit that he has a point. He argues that high school students in the bottom half of their class should think twice before entering a four-year college. A two-year college or non-degree program might be more appropriate. He bases this advice on the following disheartening finding: “Among high-school students who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their classes, and whose first institutions were four-year colleges, two-thirds had not earned diplomas eight and a half years later.” And they were piling up debt.

Part of the problem, he says, relates to the quality of teaching. Class size, for example, is a problem. How much attention can I give each student in a fifty-person lecture course that sometimes meets for “small” group discussions of twenty-five students? My classroom experience, however, suggests that something else is also at work. There seems to be some kind of cultural or educational gap that has not prepared some of my students for the university classroom and university assignments. There are always a handful of students who expect every lecture to be both entertaining and amusing to every student in the classroom. Whatever happened to students just putting up with something that doesn’t interest them personally and learning about it anyway? What about basic curiosity and giving something a chance? This past semester two young men surreptitiously texted each other during a forty-five-minute excerpt from Chaplin’s hilarious “Modern Times.” Is there any hope that such students will ever be interested in anything in the classroom?

And what about those students who feel that reading assignments are an imposition, as if everything worth knowing were available on Wikipedia or a comparable website? True story: I had a student this semester who preferred to read email and texts on her smart phone instead of listening to the lecture. Usually when students do this, they try to be discrete about it, even if their facial expressions give them away. This student, however, held the phone up in front of her face so there could be no mistaking where her attention was. When I spoke to her about it another time, she said she was using the phone for the internet so she could bring something to the discussion. I told her I knew the little bit that was on the internet for our subject and that I was more interested in her own thoughts on the assigned book. She was flabbergasted.

These complaints of mine can lead to a slippery slope. I can’t forget all the hard-working, disciplined, and curious students I know. I don’t want to succumb to the cynicism that pervades Rate Your Students, a blog where some academics vent about their students and colleagues. It really is up to me to make the best I can out of a situation, even for the Sisyphean task of teaching the required one-semester survey in Western Civilization. Indeed, I think I’ve become a better teacher for these experiences. Still, Marty Nemko has a point, even if the fault does not just lie with institutions selling the dream of a four-year degree. There is clearly a gulf separating the expectations of a portion of the student body from the expectations that they encounter in the classroom. While many colleges and universities need to be more student-centered, prospective students need to consider whether a four-year college is the right choice for them. It is for many people, but not for everyone.