In a piece he wrote for The Washington Post recently, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities and a former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa, argued that Americans should stop treating college like a commodity. Purchasing a college degree is not like buying a car or a television, he wrote. Rather, the value of higher education is in what students discover through this exploratory period in their life. Much of what they get out of college is the effort they put into it.
Rawlings is absolutely right about the intrinsic value of higher education in the serendipitous paths that students take: the majors they never knew existed, the professors who become their mentors, and the diversity of classmates they meet. But the blame for turning college into a commodity is not the fault of the public, lawmakers, or the media; that rests mostly on the shoulders of the colleges themselves.
Here are three reasons why:
1. For decades, higher education has promoted the personal economic value of higher education.
Every three years, the College Board produces a slick report called Education Pays, which outlines the benefits of higher education. The first half of the report focuses exclusively on the economic benefits of a college degree, with the opening pages all about the individual benefits of higher earnings during a person’s lifetime. Only in the second half does the report discuss the positive outcomes of a degree on levels of voting, civic engagement, and improvements in health and obesity.
Colleges also have pushed the personal economic benefits of a degree in the past decade as they persuaded more students to take on loan debt and greater amounts of it to finance increasingly larger tuition bills.
In recent years, however, as the data on career outcomes improved and students and parents could search salaries of graduates by school and major, on web sites like Payscale and state databases like the one Virginia runs, did higher-education leaders suddenly begin to think that earnings were too narrow of a measure. After all, they could no longer ride the coattails of national averages, which obscure the value of individual schools and make everyone look good.
2. Students are not solely responsible for their success. The college does matter.
Rawlings argued that “the value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum.” Not always. It depends on how you’re measuring success whether the student makes the college or the college makes the student.
When the primary measure of a degree’s value is actually graduating, then getting the right match between a prospective student and a college is what matters most, something I learned during research for my book College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. And in making that match, colleges are the more important player.
It’s called “undermatching,” a phenomenon I wrote about in a Grade Point post a few months ago. In short, it’s what happens when smart students, usually low-income, could succeed at an elite college but never apply to one or go to one. When they go to a less-selective college they reduce their chances of earning a degree, according to the research.
Rawlings taught and led great institutions, public and private, so most students could succeed at any of them. But that’s not always the case, and for some students, where they go to college is the difference between getting a degree or becoming another dropout statistic.
3. Colleges have turned the four-year degree into an assembly line of getting in and getting out as quickly as possible.
Rawlings wrote that “most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.”
In some cases, that’s exactly what is happening. The idea of college as a place for exploration and discovery is one that is quickly falling out of favor as the cost of a degree spirals upward and state and federal officials tie appropriations to graduation rates. I saw this firsthand a few years ago when I sat in on advising appointments at Temple University for a story on how colleges were centralizing their academic counseling and taking the role away from faculty members.
The professional advisers had largely one goal: to push students to sign up for the “right” classes and graduate on time. The same is true of electronic advising systems that many big public universities have adopted. Like online services that recommend movies and books based on similar customers, these advising systems suggest courses and majors based on similar students using complex data algorithms. The idea of trying out courses and unexpectedly falling in love with a subject is largely lost in such systems.
If colleges want to change the national conversation about higher education as a commodity they should stop blaming the messengers and should start changing their own messages and strategies about the economic value of a degree and how they assist students in getting to graduation.