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The problem with the push for more college degrees
Why are we prioritizing completion, rather than actual learning?
In a 2009 speech, President Barack Obama proclaimed that by 2020, the United States will “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."
As we near 2020, it is worth asking how close are we to reaching that lofty goal and what have been the results of focusing so intently on college graduation rates as a sign of success.
Based on my work as a historian of education and a book I wrote recently on the purpose of college, I argue that a focus on degree attainment discounts the value of what a true college education provides. It places more emphasis on the piece of paper and less on the experience of college. This is harmful because it creates an impetus to expand the number of degrees without necessarily devoting resources to increase access to college education.
State support declines
However, despite the Obama administration's 2020 college completion goal, state support for public colleges has fallen by about US$9 billion over the past decade. In addition, large gaps in degree attainment remain between wealthy and poorer Americans and between racial and ethnic groups. Moreover, despite a steady increase in college degree attainment, the United States remains 13th in the world in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds who have earned a college degree.
In this context, elected leaders on both sides of the aisle, from Obama to former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, called for new institutions and programs to provide fast, easy and cheaper access to degrees, instead of the time, curricula and professors that define a college education.
New models emerge
Responding to the call to speed students' progress toward degrees, new nonprofit institutions such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University's College for America established online programs to award students credit for prior learning and meeting predetermined “competencies."
Simultaneously, public colleges such as Arizona State University and Purdue University partnered with private corporations such as Pearson and Kaplan, respectively, to offer large numbers of online degrees without the kind of professorial oversight and interaction available to students on campus.
These approaches emphasize degree completion instead of the kinds of intellectual experiences that define a college education.
Elements of a college education
In my new book, “What's the Point of College?," I argue that what makes college distinct from other kinds of education is that a college education is not reducible to training.
I also argue that a college education does not just certify competency but expands the mind in unpredictable ways. A college education requires time and interactions with professors and peers. And most of all, a college education requires opportunities to think without placing a value or seeking a specific outcome on the thought. Colleges should, ideally, encourage such reflection and insight.
I believe Obama's aspiration to increase the number of college graduates came at the cost of paying attention to the education that colleges should offer. The 2020 college completion goal shows that it is possible to increase the number of Americans with a college degree without necessarily increasing the number of Americans with a college education.
A degree's worth
Certainly, the United States should support good-faith efforts to increase job training for people with or without college degrees. Many of the fastest-growing jobs, in such fields as dental hygiene, health care support and construction, require specialization but not a college education.
However, I worry that a focus on economic outcomes could go too far. Recently, for example, the Gates Foundation called for the evaluation of all college degrees based on their economic payoff. That is to say, the Gates Foundation wants to determine which degrees are a worthwhile investment. This would repeat the mistake of the Obama administration by again emphasizing the short-term salary gains of a college degree, rather than the broadening of the mind that comes with a college education. The emphasis that the Gates Foundation is placing on the economic value of a college degree threatens what makes college worthwhile – not just intellectually but also financially.
A college education is valuable in the labor market precisely because it cannot be reduced to one set of skills. What makes college graduates desirable is their ability to think broadly about the world and their capacity to use language and numbers well. These outcomes are achieved by immersing people for a portion of their lives on campuses devoted to thinking as an end in itself.
As 2020 approaches, I see a need for the United States to abandon its focus on degrees and instead support Americans – whether young or old, first-generation or legacy, poor or rich – to gain access to a true college education. This requires transforming America's colleges to make them available to people in all stages of life.
Older people, often with mortgages, children or aging parents, need real and meaningful support to pursue a college education. If we Americans want more college-educated citizens, we must care about more than counting degrees.
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Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
China moves to Russia and India takes over Canada. The Swiss get Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi India. And the U.S.? It stays where it is.
What if the world were rearranged so that the inhabitants of the country with the largest population would move to the country with the largest area? And the second-largest population would migrate to the second-largest country, and so on?
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.