July 8, 2015

Every now and then one is fortunate enough to discover a gem among all the opinion columns that are published (or, posted) every day. Such was a piece that appeared in THE WASHINGTON POST a couple of weeks ago.

“College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one” by Hunter Rawlings succinctly scores such a bullseye.

Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities and a former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Here is an excerpt:

“ . . . With college replacing high school 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 worse, misleading.

Here’s what I mean. First, most everyone now evaluates college in purely economic terms, thus reducing it to a commodity like a car or a house. How much does the average English major at college X earn 18 months after graduation? What is the average debt of college Y’s alumni? How much does it cost to attend college Z, and is it worth it? How much more does the “average” college grad earn over a lifetime than someone with only a high school degree? (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 know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges. And I have taught classes which my students made great through their efforts, and classes which my students made average or worse through their lack of effort. Though I would like to think I made a real contribution to student learning, my role was not the sole or even determining factor in the value of those courses to my students.

A college education, then, if it is a commodity, is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his 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 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. . . . “

The entire column is worth your time to read. In my opinion, it is a clear definition of what a college education should be and what, too often, it is not.

Come to think of it, don’t the same points that Rawlings makes about a college education apply to almost everything each one of us does in life?

In our professional careers and in our personal lives, success is most often related to the efforts we put in.

Few things in life come automatically.

More on Monday – – –

— Bill Walton: co-Founder, ITC Learning (Mondays & Wednesdays)