Is college a waste of time and money?

Renee James Contributor
Font Size:

For everyone who just sent someone back to college for another semester, everyone who just opened up the FAFSA form online, wept softly for a minute or two, and then jumped into it in the hopes of getting some financial aid to send someone to college, and everyone who makes those faithful contributions to a 529 plan, the news is not good. And while I’m open to the exceptions to the following — and thankfully, there are exceptions — I can’t help feeling a little disheartened.

A new book from sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, offers a rather sobering view of the educational atmosphere found behind the ivy-covered walls we like to think are preparing our young adults for insightful, inquisitive, productive lives. In fact, many of America’s universities are probably doing nothing of the kind, including those with the most prestigious reputations. Sadly, it may be that the best that can be said of the four (or five or six) years of life spent earning a college degree is that if you’re a successful student, you’ll leave with some kind of “training” that will lead to a job, possibly even a career.

A couple of statistics from Arum and Roska trouble me enormously. For example, if you believe your son or daughter is learning analytical reasoning, critical thinking and written communications skills during their first two years of college, you may be wrong. In fact, 45% of the students Arum and Roska surveyed demonstrated no significant gains in any of these areas during their first two years of college. In the words of many young people: That’s awesome.

I’d like to believe that spending a few years surrounded by smart, erudite, provocative thinkers who want to do nothing more than immerse you in the wonders and benefits of a liberal arts education would expand your horizons. I’d like to believe the primary purpose of education is to teach a student to think (about a lot of different things in a lot of different ways), not to scoop up credits that will lead to a degree that will lead to a job. I’d like to — but given this research, I can’t.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Let’s review something more measurable: assignments. Then again, let’s not. Suffice it to say that few students seem overburdened with academics. Fifty percent of them report not having a single course that requires twenty or more pages of writing. Not one course.

Maybe students dedicate their time to doing research and lab work; to reading and creating projects instead of writing papers. No, not really. According to Arum and Roska, college students spend twelve to fourteen hours a week studying. Twelve to fourteen hours! What’s truly remarkable is that even with this abbreviated study schedule (and really — why would they devote any more time to it, with so little asked of them), the results of all that (non)work are impressive. The average GPA of the survey respondents is a very respectable 3.2.

Another research team tells us a similarly dismal story about higher education. In their book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It, sociologist Andrew Hacker and New York Times reporter Claudia Dreifus posit, among other things, that faculty tenure and sabbaticals have an impact on the value of the education a university offers; that too much money is spent on programs that do little or nothing to enhance the learning environment.

According to the White House website, “President Obama is committed to ensuring that America will regain its lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020.” Given the research, this is a lofty but dubious goal. Perhaps we should be committed to ensuring that America has the highest proportion of well-read, inquisitive, invested, involved students graduating from college — or high school or any other educational institution for that matter — in the world.

Renee James writes social commentary and keeps track of the things that mystify her on her blog: It’s not me, it’s you, found at reneeaj.blogspot.com. Her email address is raaj3@msn.com.