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Why we are looking at the ‘value’ of college all wrong

St. John’s College in Annapolis. (Photo by Mark Gail/The Washington Post)
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There is a national debate about whether going to college is worth the increasingly hefty price tag. The argument against it is that many students come out four — or five or six — years later and can’t find a job that pays a lot, or they can’t find a job at all. But in this post, St. John’s College President Christopher B. Nelson argues that “education and economics are essentially incompatible” and that the economic lens is the wrong way to judge education. Nelson has been president of St. John’s,  in Annapolis, Maryland, since June 1991. Before that he, practiced law in Chicago for 18 years and was chairman of his law firm. As university president, he has become a national spokesman for the liberal arts.  St. John’s, with a campus in Annapolis and in Santa Fe, N.M., has an unusual liberal arts  curriculum, one based on discussion of works from the Western Canon.

By Christopher B. Nelson

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.

The incompatibility rests on a fundamental difference between economics and education. Begin with the idea of economics as the science of scarcity. The price of a commodity is largely dependent on its relative scarcity. Economic value increases when a commodity becomes scarce, and a commodity that is not scarce will become scarce if it is distributed widely and used up indiscriminately. Scarcity is basic to the world view of economics—so much so that the language of economics speaks as though scarcity and value are inseparable.

The things that matter most in education, though, do not fit this paradigm. They are not scarce, and yet they are extremely valuable—indeed they are among the most valuable in human life. They do not become scarce by being shared. Instead, they expand and grow the more they are shared.

One of these things is knowledge. Knowledge has never been exhausted by spreading it to more and more people. Today, it is more abundant than at any time in the past, and it reproduces more prolifically as it is shared. Moreover, technology has made it possible to store knowledge efficiently and to access it cheaply. No wonder that the economic paradigm is having difficulty capturing and domesticating it into a well-behaved economic commodity.

This is disconcerting for institutions that think of themselves primarily as providers of information. If the knowledge is out there, freely accessible, why then should anyone pay large sums of money to a knowledge gatekeeper—let alone go into debt? Today, the confrontation between free technological access and proprietary gate-keeping is leading to turmoil about new models of delivery in higher education.

But the 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.

It is, after all, relatively easy to measure the means used in getting an education, to assess the learning of intermediate skills that prepare one for a higher purpose—things like mastering vocabulary and spelling, for instance, which help one to communicate. It is also easy to measure the handy, quantifiable by-products of a college education, like post-graduate earning, either in the short term or long term. But both of these kinds of measures fail to speak to education’s proper end—the maturation of the student.

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:

1. at least one teacher who made learning exciting

2. personal concern of teachers for students

3. finding a mentor

4. working on a long-term project for at least one semester

5. opportunities to put classroom learning into practice through internships or jobs

6. 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.