Better writers than I have articulated the benefits of attending college and earning a degree. In previous posts, I have attempted to point out the individual and societal benefits. I have mentioned some of the mechanisms that seems most relevant to attaining these benefits. But to me there still seems to be a lack an overall compelling argument for the college experience. There is not an overarching theme that clearly delineates the college experience from other potentially transformational experiences. In this post, I would like to suggest that theme should be about how the college experience changes the trajectory of the individual’s future.
Of course, the immediate thought might be that the college graduate’s future earnings should and likely will be higher. However, a change in trajectory goes beyond potential income. The process of attending college, exposure to and mingling with diverse thoughts and experiences, students have struggles and success, and the plethora of other events that make up college not only transforms but also raises the consciousness of the individual. Aspirations and dreams change, tolerance of risk and differences increases, and even the skills at self-learning with critical evaluation are honed and enhanced. The college experience changes the individual’s awareness of the world and their unique journey through that world.
To many of a college graduate, the phrases above might well seem like I am stating the obvious. However, even that familiarity with the statements above provides evidence and testament to the change in trajectory. Life has moved beyond occurrence to direction and malleability. No longer does the college graduate react and adapt to life’s circumstances. Rather there are aspirations and intentionality to their path through life. This purposeful direction is the change in trajectory.
The change did not occur quickly. Rather it is the fulfillment of the four-year journey through college. It happened through the synergy of the college living experience in conjunction with the academic studies. Interestingly, the process and change is subtle and almost indiscernible to student. However, ask any professor or college educator and they can expound on the huge differences between first year and fourth year students. This change is not simply a growth in maturity. Rather, it is as though a different and substantially transformed individual has emerged.
Through each of these posts, I have attempted to avoid direct commentary about non-traditional collegiate paths. I will however note that the synergy of college life with academics seems paramount to the change in trajectory. The student that leaves the home environment and is in a physically and psychically diverse place in both thoughts and people will inevitably grow. This is not easily accomplished with either online or community college experiences.
Occasionally in the literature, we read or hear the phrase downward spiral. The term refers to a person’s life moving from on tragic event to an even more tragic event. It seems as if the person is on an inevitable degradation of their life. Each event and occurrence seems to reinforce problems and actually contribute to the next level of challenge. Rarely, do we hear or read of an opposite effect.
I have been writing about this opposite effect. The college experience that I mention is an upgrading experience. The change in trajectory that I mention is the upward spiral of the college graduate’s life experience. The college graduate will continue to enjoy events and experiences that reinforce and form the foundation of new and uplifting future experiences. The foundation of this upward spiral is the college degree that leads to the inevitable change in trajectory. That seems to be the overarching benefit of college.
Work, careers, hobbies, sports, and life in general is becoming more complicated every day. Achievement and success in most endeavors takes aptitude, motivation, and quite often a highly developed skill set. Therefore, it really was not much of a surprise when I recently received an inquiry from a member of my state’s legislature about “what skills are students in your major developing?” I do not think this legislator was wondering about critical thinking, historical perspective, and other “meta-skills.”
While I generally do ascribe to the belief that college is more than just a sum of skills in a particular discipline, I occasionally wonder if we could not achieve both but a different way. For instance, in my area of marketing students, often students do not start on their major course work until their third year. With each year costing the student anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 in direct costs, not to mention opportunity costs of lost income, it is a fair question to ask if there is a better way.
However, in today’s rapidly changing society, one key meta-skill regularly refutes the accelerated program approach. That meta-skill is the ability to learn to learn. Most people upon even a short reflection will recognize that skills developed three, two, or even one decade ago are insufficient for today’s demands. In this evolving work place and society, skill sets can rapidly become obsolete. This can be as mundane as the ability to program and use a VCR (videocassette recorder for those too you to know) to learning a computer program language such as FORTRAN (now I am really dating myself). Knowledge of how to perform these tasks was seen as essential skills during the day.
There is little doubt that anyone can learn to learn. However, as mentioned in previous posts, over the centuries the liberal arts program of study as a basic of the college education has had phenomenal success. In addition, it is not just the college courses that help students learn to learn. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with its inherent introduction to divergent views and lifestyles. Learning to learn comes from the college experience that challenges and changes or reinforces students’ preconceived worldviews. Learning to learn comes from the college experience with all its uncomfortableness in combination with periods of sublime connectedness.
Of course, these same activities in college build other strong traits and characteristics such as flexibility and tolerance of others. However, for today’s student, these must be combined with current skills. There is little or no argument against engineers learning how to understand material stress loads or chemists grasping fully the implications of molecular structure. Both historians and experts in literature need to understand the search devices available today. And all students need skills in tools such as WORD, EXCEL, and others. With that said, there is a caveat. The need for some of those skills can and will decay.
So for the legislator or any person wondering about the skills being developed by the current group of students, it is important that they remember the bigger goals of college that are relevant. Those skills are extensive and momentarily relevant. They provide a great launch point. But they cannot replace the continuing need for development of new skills. Moreover, those skills are very likely self-taught. Therefore, the final skill or trait that we most want of college students is that they have learned to learn.
I hope that by now the theme of these blogs has emerged. A college degree earned at the end of the college education is the culmination of a transformational process. When it works best, this transformational process should create a new trajectory for the individual’s future. And while I come from a practical and applied discipline in business, marketing, I believe the indispensable foundation to this process is the core liberal arts courses or what some programs call the general education program.
Regardless of the name, these broad based and multidisciplinary courses are an essential ingredient to the transformational process. As I will elaborate upon below, these courses influence multiple facets of the individual’s development as they pursue becoming ‘college educated.’ First, the liberal arts education forms the historic foundation of what is known as a college education. Therefore, in that sense, these courses provide a common link to what is considered a college degree. Another benefit of these multidisciplinary courses is to introduce students to a breadth of knowledge, and one these subjects might become their passion and major. Beyond a breadth of knowledge, the courses also form a foundation about lifelong learning both in process sense and in developing a quest or thirst for new understandings. Each of the above outcomes provides a compelling argument for the liberal arts education but when considered in their whole, these outcomes provide the rationale for what I refer to as an indispensable foundation.
As I expand on these positive outcomes, I will begin with the history of college education. So far, in these articles’ I have used the United States version or definition of College or University interchangeably. That may not be appropriate as we discuss the origins of higher education, which also has been referred to in by others cultures as tertiary education. Tertiary is third level education or beyond secondary education. In some part of the world, this tertiary education is limited to University education while others refer to both University and College. Therefore, we will try to review only the origins and history of third level higher education, which of course would assume the existence of secondary education.
While others have useful arguments about ‘higher’ education developing differently in other cultures, the origins of tertiary education with a liberal arts component is best traced to the European institutions that evolved out of cathedral or monastic schools between 11th and 14th centuries. These institutions existed for the study of the Arts as well as the higher disciplines of Theology, Law, and Medicine. The Arts encompassed the seven disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music theory, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which would become the foundation of the modern Liberal Arts education. There are of course different configurations depending upon the institution but the core disciplines remain essentially the same but with the added learning outcomes of intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. And the benefit of this continuity is that today’s students are uniquely connected to the students from hundreds of years ago as each studied these core disciplines as they all strived to earn their collegiate credentials. An expectation and experience endures over the centuries of what it means to be collegiately educated.
Some of the above intellectual and practical skills develop as outcomes of learning in depth the content knowledge of courses such as calculus or chemistry. This, of course, is the second benefit of the liberal arts component of college. However, learning the above skills also develops perseverance in learning as students move through courses or disciplines that do not engage or interest them. Often their learning is how to develop intrinsic motivation based on persevering in order to achieve an ultimate goal. Rare is the collegiate student that has not privately or publicly complained, “why do I have to learn this, I’ll never use it in real life?” about some subject or two. Only later, will they find the usefulness or perhaps realize that the process of learning as a skill unto itself was enhanced by ‘slogging’ through the course.
Of course, moving through the breadth of courses also helps the student explore and perhaps find their life ambition. At my institution, over fifty percent of the students in my discipline change their declared entry major at least once. That is exactly as it should be. Expecting an 18-year-old student to understand their life goals is unrealistic. They often have not even had the exposure during the secondary stage of their education to the breadth of opportunities. Similarly, these students have limited exposure to the experts in these various disciplines. These experts are the exemplars of that discipline that can appropriately convey the content and future of the discipline.
So, before we even get to the expertise development provided by a collegiate education, we have a compelling argument about the transformational nature the general education provides. A process vetted by hundreds of years. This general or liberal arts education changes the student, hones intellectual skills, and potentially helps sort through majors and career opportunities. It is for these reasons that as part of the collegiate experience and the collegiate education that I deem the liberal arts component indispensable.
College Educations: Transforming Society
There is a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson that goes something like "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people." The actuality is that Mr. Jefferson apparently never said those exact words. However, it a perverse way the fact that I know he did note use those words and the fact that I know he actually wrote in a letter to Charles Yancey an argument for public education, including university. The exact words about democracy and education were, “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be.” Moreover, it is not that I ever knew this quote from my education.
Rather, this is an example of the outcome of my university education. My professor insisted that I needed to be curious and skeptical. It was impressed upon me to seek out the source of knowledge myself and not rely on others opinions or conjectures. Further, I was educated on how to conduct that original research such that I could find the original letter to Mr. Yancey from Mr. Jefferson and read the quote and the context. This letter is an interesting read as are most of Mr. Jefferson’s letters but that is an aside.
Now I need to be clear, I was not a history major though I am a history buff. I was not a Political Science major either though I took the LSAT for fun one time. Nope, I was a statistics major. However, I received the basics of a liberal arts education that formed the foundation of my critical thinking skills as well as my research skills. To Mr. Jefferson, this training was essential for democracy otherwise, any government’s propensity was to erode the liberty and property of the people. Therefore, that alone might seem enough ‘value’ of college education to society. However, I would argue there is more.
An economic impact and multiplier develops from college education on the macro level. The evidence seems compelling. In 2003, Sianesi and Reenen concluded in their article in the Journal of Economic Surveys, that each year of University education increased overall GDP by 3 to 6% but also increased the rate of growth in GDP in the United Kingdom. The research has built on these findings to conclude that it is not just attendance but the quality of the education that leads to the “strong evidence that the cognitive skills of the population - rather than mere school attainment - are powerfully related to individual earnings, to the distribution of income, and to economic growth.” Page 1 (2008) Hanushek and Woessmann, World Bank Working Paper 4122. These are just two of literally hundreds of papers that empirically demonstrate that college or university education accelerates economic development.
It is apparent that University educations transform the individual and through the individual their society. For over 200 years, the foundation of democracy has had education as a pillar. In addition, for almost as long, the innovation and drive that lead to economic prosperity has come from the same source. In the next post, we begin looking at the actual mechanisms that leads to a university education.
It seems as if we are in the season when the articles about college and university education focus upon the income earned after graduation. Occasionally, there is a slight variation and the article, news story, or blog post focuses on career success. And of course, these stories totally miss the point. These are the outcomes of the college education. There is not a guarantee associated with the college degree. In fact, many like to point out examples of those with college degrees getting the fast food jobs. Of course, these stories of less successful career outcomes miss the point as well.
College is a unique transforming journey tailored to each individual. The importance of the previous statement compels me to repeat and rephrase. A successful college experience will transform the individual in manner that will alter the trajectory of their life. The goal of colleges and universities is to create the environment where each individual can transcend the projected straight line of their supposed destiny. The roots of this extremely successful system have been around for over 2500 years. (This history will be the subject of a separate blog).
I read an interesting article pointing out some successful business people that did not complete their college education http://time.com/money/4388043/7-successful-ceos-who-dont-have-a-college-degree/. I could point out the article implies 493 out of 500 Fortune 500 CEOs do have college degrees but for now, let me point out the positive impact of this individualized system on a very personal level. By personal, I mean I will relate my own experience.
Mine is neither dramatic, awe inspiring, or particularly interesting. Rather, I think you may find in its very mundane nature the essence of the beauty of the college transformation. My father was enlisted man in the US Army Air Corp and then the US Air Force. He was the son of what is called a sharecropper today. My mother was college educated and the only daughter of a middle class family. My father passed away when I was five. This fact is relevant only so much as his Air Force benefits are big part of what enabled me to go to college.
Now I went to college in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My degree is a B.S. of Statistics. I am sure none of my professor would remember me. I attended the University of Florida, which even then was a large state institution. I had a great experience but what sticks in my mind the most is how those years form such a fundamental foundation of whom I am today. None of the technical computer skills are relevant but the decision trees we had to learn still are part of my planning process. The language I learned was Latin of which I remember next to nothing but the words of other romance languages such as Spanish, Italian, and even German have patterns I recognize.
My skepticism of doomsayers and pessimists remains as I remember clearly the abundance of articles about the coming Ice Age (see Time Magazine January 31, 1973) or this quote from a personal favorite of mine “"Climate experts believe the next ice age is on its way."- Leonard Nimoy, 1978. You can see more here http://www.populartechnology.net/2013/02/the-1970s-global-cooling-alarmism.html . Of course, these comments and projections are in direct contrast to the current Global Warming scenario. I am not here to take sides in either projection but rather point out, my nuanced view of both projections is a product of my college education that included science, mathematics, languages, social sciences, and a breadth in all subjects. This college education changed me forever.
Nor was this an easily accomplished transformation. I was young and unbelievably self-assured. My college education launched me in my career and I was successful beyond even some of my grandiose ideas. I also had some significant setbacks, which once again my college education provided the resiliency for recovery. Through it all, I continued to transcend what was likely a mediocre path. I have no idea where a child raised in a single parent family in the 60s would have ended up but I do not think it would be where I am now. Even with a college degree, I am not sure many (especially not me) would have projected me as the chair of an academic unit at a University. Nevertheless, here I am with even this blog providing some example of the change wrought by a college education.
Therefore, to me the college education is not the outcome but the opportunity. The design of each university and college is to create the opportunity to transform. Sometimes students do not avail themselves of the opportunity provided but still successfully graduate. That is their loss. There are other examples of those non-graduates that did encounter the transformation. That is great. However, for the vast majority the opportunity to transcend is there and they fully embrace all that is offered. This opportunity is not foisted upon any and must instead be embraced for the transformation and transcendence that will occur and not for the potential later outcomes. Those will likely occur but are absolutely the byproduct of the college education and not the primary goal.
I encourage all that read this and are considering college for themselves or their children, to reframe your questions. Do not just ask about the post-graduation outcomes. Rather, ask and listen to the answers about how the university plans to make the change and even the transformation in the graduate.
Sometime a prospective student reframes or abbreviates the question as “Why go to college?” Others (not students) touch on part of the question from the perspective of expense and cost. Meanwhile, some people look at the question and answer through the lens of their personal experience. It appears the framing of the above questions as well as the answers are often from each person’s perspective. We need to consider a broader perspective. That will not be easy. It will take time and patience to explore fully.
The purpose of this blog is to broaden the reader’s understanding of the importance of a college education and the value of the colleges that provide that education. The value and importance will be partly from the transformation this education imparts upon the individual. There are also societal values that come from an educated citizenry. There are cultural implications. There are generational commitments, which fuel the rhythm of transference. There is certainly the perspective of investment and the expected return on that investment. Of course, it is critical to understand the origins of what is today’s college education. These topics as well as others will be part of this series of blog posts.
It is also likely that I will not convey everything correctly or succinctly. My colleagues in higher education likely will disagree with some of what I post. That is fantastic. I welcome alternative points of views and all the corrections I will richly deserve. That dialogue not only informs and broadens everyone’s understanding but it also serves as a living example of civil discourse. The ability to communicate while agreeing to disagree is another of the wonderful benefits of this topic, a college education.
I hope for one final benefit for this blog. I hope that I as well as other educators draw back the curtain on how we attempt to educate. I think even we as educators and professors sometimes forget in the day-to-day grind the larger picture. We do not want to hide or be less than transparent about our learning goals but sometimes we do forget to voice our noble purpose. However, ask any of us and we will surely gleam when we talk about that moment when we discern awareness or understanding has dawned in our students. The sudden elation we feel when that proverbial lightbulb goes off.
So buckle up and enjoy the ride as I humbly attempt to provide my perspective on the answers to “Why have colleges and college education?” If all goes according to plan, I will post on this topic every two weeks. I hope that there will be some other posts mixed in as well as some pictures of my trips. Please if you read, comment. Agree or disagree, all viewpoints help so I look forward to comments.