What Makes a College Education Valuable?

Over the weekend, I saw the documentary, Ivory Tower, and was prepared to be completely depressed.

Going in, I knew the documentary was about student loan debt; the trailer for the film revealed that the amount of student loan debt in the United States is now higher than credit card debt. This is a terrifying fact, of course, and one that has led news pundits, columnists, students, parents, and even scholars to ask, “Is a college education worth a lifetime of financial struggle?” What is the “value” of a college education?

As a college-educated, PhD-pursuing individual, I often recoil from questions like these. Of course a liberal arts education is valuable. Of course we’d all be better off if we had the kind of education that would make us effective communicators, critical thinkers, and stronger problem solvers. College is of course the place to do that. Where else do students have a safe and protected space to experiment with ideas and be in a community of supportive individuals who have devoted their lives to scholarly pursuits?

The more I think about my initial reactions, however, the more defensive I realize I can be. My bias is clear: I’ve invested my 20s in staying within an academic institution. I love the work I do and I want others to see the value that I think is to be gained from writing in a formal setting, in reading literature that’s challenging (and new), and learning how to read with an understanding of historical contexts, theoretical frameworks, and audience differences. I think school is a great place to do that because – well – that’s where I learned to do that. As a college student, I was lucky enough to have fantastic mentors.

I can still remember sitting in the office of one of my college mentors, crying after I was rejected from a fiction workshop I applied for. He was sympathetic without pandering to my needs; he offered to read my fiction for me the next time I applied for a workshop and later, even suggested that I try something new: poetry. Having a mentor to help guide my choices, to steer me in productive directions, and to help me move forward from failures was, in no hyperbolic terms, life-changing. I felt empowered by a mentor like this; I saw that I could change directions in my work and find new opportunities for success.

Throughout my college education, I was lucky enough to attend classes (at a large public research institution!) that frequently had fewer than twenty students enrolled. This might have been a result of the fact that I majored in English – a relatively small degree program – but it was within the context of those small seminars with faculty who I knew were invested in my education and writing that in many ways inspired me to go into academia. Of course, I can’t ignore the influence supervising a large writing center and conducting my own research had on my choices either, but the point is that I think the formal community I was a part of and the encouragement I received within that protected community gave me greater confidence in my skills and affirmed within me my interest (and I hope talent?) as an astute reader, writer, teacher, and researcher.

I think these kinds of institutions and structures are still important; where else can learning for the sake of learning be protected from diverging interests?

When I walked out of the theater, however, the thought that loomed for me was: “We need better college teaching.” I know that my college education wouldn’t have been nearly as valuable for me had it not been for the professors I had who were not only fantastic researchers, but were above all, mentors and educators. A student going into massive amounts of debt for their college education gets little out of the experience of sitting in a large lecture hall and passively absorbing a “sage on the stage’s” experience.

As a PhD student, I’ve received very little teacher training. Before I was a TA as a first-year graduate student, I attended one three-hour workshop on “teaching” that wound up mostly being about how to report student plagiarism and what to do if students get hostile or violent. While I’m glad I was prepared for an emergency situation, I learned very little about pedagogy until I took a writing pedagogy course in the last quarter of my first year. While that course was useful, I know that I could have used more training about classroom management, lesson planning, and mentoring from the day I stepped on to Davis’s campus. I was not totally unprepared to teach since I had received ample training as a writing center tutor and supervisor, but without that experience, I would have been completely lost.

Nothing can replace individualized education, and the whole reason we have institutions of higher learning is for people to connect, interact, and collaborate. Without that connection, there is no reason to fork up thousands of dollars. Sure, universities can offer networking opportunities and resources for professional development, but what I remember most from college are the small interactions I had and the opportunities to learn within smaller groups and  directly from faculty.

As someone who has designed and taught in hybrid (i.e. partially online) learning environments, I also see potential for capitalizing more on this technology and allowing students greater “flipped” learning experiences. But I think that this doesn’t replace good teacher training and opportunities for professors and professors-in-training to know what it takes to engage and motivate students to push themselves and their thinking even more. Working in groups and communicating is key no matter what profession students enter into, and college can be a place to cultivate those skills in a safe space.

With that said, these kinds of interactions are not for everyone, and I also think that high school students could receive greater guidance on whether college is even the right choice for them and their ambitions. Every student should have the right to an education, but every student should also be educated on whether higher education is right for them. Greater financial literacy and an understanding of the effects of loans and debts on a student would be incredibly valuable.

Scholars could be a part of this conversation to educate college students. Much of the “humanities crisis” has revolved around the question of articulating the worth of our studies. However, I think scholars from every discipline could do more to articulate in concrete terms what their studies provide and communicating the value of their work to a broader prospective audience. I’ll admit that I occasionally still struggle to articulate clearly and concretely why my work matters; this is something I hope to get better at in the years that follow.

So, I still don’t if a college education is worth financial burden for every single student. What I do know is that as educators, we can make a college education worthwhile for our students if we continue to value our students, their contributions, and their learning. The more respect we maintain for our students, the more we can work with them to help them grow and make their experience meaningful.

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