Col­lege isn’t a com­mod­ity. Stop treat­ing it like one.

Stu­dent ef­fort mat­ters, says for­mer Cor­nell pres­i­dent Hunter Rawl­ings

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @AAUniver­si­ties Hunter Rawl­ings is the pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ties and a for­mer pres­i­dent of Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa.

Pick up any news­pa­per or mag­a­zine, and you’re likely to see some lament about the eco­nomics of col­lege: “Too many de­grees are a waste of money,” says the Econ­o­mist; an ed­u­ca­tion spawns “crip­pling” debt, says Sa­lon; it “isn’t worth the money,” says USA To­day.

I en­tered academia 52 years ago as a stu­dent of Latin and Greek ex­pect­ing to en­counter a placid sec­tor of Amer­i­can life. Now, with a col­lege de­gree re­plac­ing a high school di­ploma as the re­quired ticket for a ca­reer, what used to be a quiet cor­ner is now a fa­vorite tar­get of pol­i­cy­mak­ers and pun­dits. Un­for­tu­nately, most com­men­tary on the value of col­lege is naive or com­pletely misses the point of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

In­creas­ingly, peo­ple eval­u­ate col­lege in purely eco­nomic terms, re­duc­ing it to a com­mod­ity like a car or a house. How much does the av­er­age English ma­jor at Uni­ver­sity X earn 18 months af­ter grad­u­a­tion? What is the av­er­age debt of Uni­ver­sity Y’s alumni? How much more does the av­er­age col­lege grad earn over a life­time com­pared with some­one with only a high school di­ploma? (The cur­rent num­ber ap­pears to be about $1 mil­lion.) There is now a cottage in­dus­try built around such data.

Even on purely eco­nomic grounds, such

ques­tions, while not use­less, begin with a false as­sump­tion. If we are go­ing to treat col­lege as a com­mod­ity, and an ex­pen­sive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its eco­nomic na­ture. Un­like a car, col­lege re­quires the “buyer” to do most of the work to ob­tain its value. The value of a de­gree de­pends more on the stu­dent’s in­put than on the col­lege’s cur­ricu­lum. I have seen ex­cel­lent stu­dents get great ed­u­ca­tions at av­er­age col­leges and un­mo­ti­vated stu­dents get poor ed­u­ca­tions at ex­cel­lent col­leges. I have taught classes that my stu­dents made great through their ef­forts, and classes that my stu­dents made av­er­age or worse through their lack of ef­fort. Though I would like to think I made a real con­tri­bu­tion to my stu­dents’ learn­ing, my role was not the sole or even the de­ter­min­ing fac­tor in the value of those cour­ses to them.

The cour­ses a stu­dent takes (or doesn’t take), the amount of work she does, the in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity she ex­hibits, her par­tic­i­pa­tion in class, her fo­cus and de­ter­mi­na­tion— all con­trib­ute far more to her ed­u­ca­tional out­come than the col­lege’s over­all cur­ricu­lum, much less its ameni­ties and so­cial life. Yet our na­tional de­bate ap­pears to be­lieve that stu­dents sim­ply re­ceive their ed­u­ca­tion from col­leges the way a per­son walks out of Best Buy with a tele­vi­sion.

The re­sults of this kind of think­ing are per­ni­cious. Gov­er­nors and leg­is­la­tors, as well as the press, treat col­leges as pur­vey­ors of goods, stu­dents as con­sumers and de­grees as prod­ucts. Stu­dents get the mes­sage. If col­leges are re­spon­si­ble for out­comes, then stu­dents can feel en­ti­tled to classes that do not push them too hard, to high grades and to ma­te­rial that does not chal­lenge their as­sump­tions or make them un­com­fort­able. Hence col­leges too of­ten cater to stu­dent de­mands for trig­ger warn­ings, “safe rooms” and can­cel­la­tions of com­mence­ment speak­ers. When rat­ing col­leges, as ev­ery­one from the pres­i­dent to weekly mag­a­zines in­sists on do­ing nowa­days, peo­ple use per­for­mance mea­sures such as grad­u­a­tion rates and time to de­gree, as though those fig­ures de­pended en­tirely upon the col­leges and not at all upon the stu­dents.

This point is made suc­cinctly by an apoc­ryphal story about a uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent who said this to new fresh­men each year: “For those of you who have come here in or­der to get a de­gree: Con­grat­u­la­tions, I have good news for you. I am giv­ing you your de­gree to­day, and you can go home now. For those who came to get an ed­u­ca­tion, wel­come to four great years of learn­ing at this uni­ver­sity.”

So let’s ac­knowl­edge that col­lege is not a com­mod­ity. It’s a chal­leng­ing en­gage­ment in which both par­ties have to play an ac­tive and risk-tak­ing role if its value is to be re­al­ized. Pro­fes­sors need to in­spire, to prod, to ir­ri­tate, to en­able learn­ing that can’t hap­pen sim­ply from read­ing books or watch­ing films or surf­ing the Web. Good teach­ers “sup­ply oxy­gen” to their class­rooms, in the words of for­mer Emory Uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent Bill Chace; they do not merely sup­ply an­swers or facts. And good col­leges pro­vide lots of help to stu­dents who face chal­lenges in com­plet­ing their de­grees in a rea­son­able amount of time.

But stu­dents need to make a sim­i­lar com­mit­ment to breathe it in and be en­livened by it. They owe this not only to their teach­ers but also to them­selves. Af­ter all, the de­ci­sion to go to col­lege is a de­ci­sion to make an in­vest­ment in the fu­ture, an in­vest­ment of time and money. And for many, a col­lege ed­u­ca­tion is ex­pen­sive. Stu­dents have to play a ma­jor role in mak­ing sure it’s money well spent.

Stu­dents need to ap­ply them­selves to the daunt­ing task of us­ing their minds — a much harder chal­lenge than most peo­ple re­al­ize un­til they ac­tu­ally try to do it. To write a thought­ful, per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment re­quires hard think­ing and clear, co­gent rhetoric. To re­search any mod­er­ately com­plex topic re­quires for­mu­lat­ing good ques­tions, crit­i­cally ex­am­in­ing lots of ev­i­dence, an­a­lyz­ing data and pre­sent­ing one’s find­ings in suc­cinct prose or sci­en­tific for­mu­las.

For many stu­dents, be­ing re­quired to pro­duce crit­i­cal thought in front of a class is a new sen­sa­tion, of­ten not a very pleas­ant one. I re­mem­ber too well my feel­ings when I had to read my first fresh­man pa­per in front of my class­mates and English pro­fes­sor. It was a dis­as­ter, a sort of pri­mal hu­mil­i­a­tion, be­cause it took only four or five sen­tences for the class to make it clear to me that I should go no fur­ther. I learned more that day about the re­quire­ments of ef­fec­tive writ­ing than in the pre­vi­ous 18 years ofmy life.

The ul­ti­mate value of col­lege is the dis­cov­ery that you can use your mind to make your own ar­gu­ments and even your own con­tri­bu­tions to knowl­edge, as do many stu­dents pur­su­ing re­search in col­lege. That, too, is a new sen­sa­tion, and a very good one. Yes, it gen­er­ally leads to higher ca­reer earn­ings. But it is the dis­cov­ery it­self that is life-chang­ing.

To cre­ate what is, for most of us, that new sen­sa­tion, you need a pro­fes­sor who pro­vokes and a stu­dent who stops slum­ber­ing. 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.

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