Not long ago, The Economist magazine published a leader (editorial) about higher education titled "Creative Destruction." Among other things, it said the cost of higher education skyrockets while productivity falters. A study by Oxford University says half of today’s occupations may be phased out in coming years.
Another study by the Pew Research Center found that fewer than half of college graduates think their education was useful in preparing them for jobs or careers. Fifty percent said they would have been better prepared if college years had included more work experience.
A third survey — this one by Purdue University — found that college graduates are much more likely to be satisfied with their lives than those without college experience. But satisfaction levels are about the same whether the individual graduates from a high-priced Ivy League school or a more affordable state school. Student loan debt is a key factor in reducing lifelong satisfaction.
It’s also true that college graduates earn more money than non-graduates. They are less likely to live in poverty or to be unemployed. And they are more likely to be "engaged" in the community through politics, volunteer work and workplace involvement. (Chances are that has less to do with college than with student backgrounds.)
These surveys create more questions than answers. For example, the number of young people who graduate from college is shamefully low — about one in three of us. That’s higher than it was a few years ago, but colleges and universities fail to serve two-thirds of the population. Equally troubling is the fact that, in real terms, the median income for this great nation has not changed much in 50 years. If college graduates earn more money than non-college graduates, and if we’re producing more graduates than ever before, how come the median income does not rise? Either colleges and universities are not contributing to overall economic growth, or college graduates are exploited. Perhaps both.
The Economist and others think the answer might be absentee education; i.e., online courses. But the emphasis in the surveys was not on what students learn. It seems the primary difference between graduates and non-graduates is the college experience itself.
College students "learn" how to get along with those from different neighborhoods — geographic, ideologic and experiential neighborhoods. They learn that wise professors think differently from the rest of us. They learn that having a Ph.D. does not make one wise (any more than being CEO makes one a leader). They learn that C students sometimes (often?) have more creative ideas than A students. They learn that working together is more productive than working individually. They learn that schedules and deadlines are important contributors to productivity.
The important part of education is not what we learn from books or lectures or the Internet. Those things change, as the Oxford study indicates and as the Pew study implies. But the need to get along, to find satisfaction in participating, and to appreciate human differences only increases as life progresses.
Sadly, higher education becomes more and more elitist, just as it was before the G.I. Bill opened the doors to everyone, and before free college education made California’s economy the third or fourth largest economy in the world.
Colleges and universities — and society itself — must find ways to reach out to the two-thirds denied access to the higher education experience. Outreach does not include pampering football players. Neither does it include pandering to so-called "honors" students. And the outreach cannot be the technological quick fix popular among utopian dreamers.
If we fail to provide the education experience to more of our young people, the great American experiment will be eclipsed by a more egalitarian society.
Don Gale, Ph.D., has been involved with higher education, one way or another, for 65 years.
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