WHAT IS THE VALUE OF A COLLEGE EDUCATION?

I ask students to write blogs; it’s part of their grade (assessment) in developmental writing. Not every student loves the assignment, but some students enjoy it, and some students do really great work. It’s one of my favorite things to grade because sometimes it’s the place where I really get to know students—in a way I otherwise wouldn’t—and it’s also a venue for writing what they are thinking about, which can be very interesting.
I wanted to be a good teacher-model today, but I was feeling uninspired; nothing seemed very compelling until I thought about some of the prompts I provide for students when they are feeling uninspired, and I remembered the one that asks, “What is the value of a college education?” and I felt like I had something to say about that.
In my experience, and based on what I’ve seen as a college instructor, a college education leads to whatever a person is willing to work for, nothing more and nothing less. A college education can open doors that would otherwise remain closed, mostly because a person lacks a particular skill or information, but if a person has the skill but lacks the willingness to prioritize and work, the job will remain elusive.
College is not the diploma, and this is a misconception: some students show up at college and seem to believe that the money they’ve paid to attend college guarantees them a diploma. Whoa! That would be nice, but we have a name for those schools: we call them “diploma mills,” and the value of those diplomas is usually less than they cost, literally. At a reputable college or university, the money one pays for tuition and fees offers the opportunity to earn a diploma, but there are no guarantees. The determining factor is the amount of work a person puts into the educational process.
This might change in the future, with the emphasis from a variety of political fronts to have X number of college graduates in year XXXX. It’s not a bad goal to have more members of society become college educated; however, the goal of having a specific number of graduates by a specific year seems contrary to what higher education is all about. Post-secondary education should not become a tag-on to what students do and learn in K-12, but that seems to be the direction things are going.
This is not a hierarchical problem. It’s not a matter of wanting to keep out certain people or save the value of the bachelor’s degree. Rather, it’s a matter of working for something valuable and knowing the value of that process. It’s showing up for class every day and doing all the required work; it’s going the extra mile once-in-a-while, and truly engaging with the learning process. It’s taking constructive criticism and growing from it, while enjoying the accolades that hard work and motivation will earn.
There are many reasons why some of the systems in our society are broken, and I’m not interested in slinging mud or figuring out who is responsible. What I am interested in is making sure that students who pay money to be in my class are getting their money’s worth: a rigorous, demanding education in language arts that will serve them well in their personal, professional, and civic lives, one that they earn through their blood, sweat, and tears, but one that will be—undoubtedly—far more valuable than the $500 or so dollars that they pay for the class.

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