Last week a new study took the academic world by storm. NYU sociologist Richard Arum and his associate Josipa Roksa published Academically Adrift, an analysis of 2,300 college students and their learning improvement over time. Students in the study took the Collegiate Learning Exam (CLE), a standardized test, in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year. Forty-five percent showed no major improvement in skills ranging from critical thinking to writing to complex reasoning.
Naturally, the controversy over this study, hailed as “the most important higher education study in years,” has refueled the debate over the validity of a college education. Why should students and families sink tens of thousands of dollars into an educational experience and support an institution that guarantees individuals little to no academic progress?
The research makes a mockery of higher education and the students who are apparently too busy socializing to study. That said, I never thought of college as an institute for getting smarter. It may be marketed as much, but, let’s be straight: there are a number of myths about college. For example, did you know that only a third of college students graduate in four years? Most take five or six, if they graduate at all.
My take on college is a pragmatic one. You should go, but don’t waste time or money. I recall my father saying very matter-of-factly, as I was deciding on schools, “Why pay $50,000 a year to go to NYU when you’re going to take the same 100 level courses your first year or two in college at Penn State, where it’s a fraction of the price? If you decide you hate Penn State, transfer. At least then you’ve saved yourself thousands of dollars.” Point taken. And then there was my boss during a summer internship in college who turned to me and said, “You don’t go to college to get smarter, Farnoosh. You go there to grow up, network and prepare for your career.” If you learn some Latin and memorize the formula for the Capital Asset Pricing Model along the way – and it sticks – even better.
This is not to say that the college system isn’t flawed or that we should excuse its shortcomings. As one critic writes, the college degree is having “an identity crisis,” and I couldn’t agree more. But we can’t just boycott college until administrators find a better way to teach. Or hope that students who engage in keg stands and beer pong on weeknights will volunteer to spend more time at the library. Don’t forget that, at the very least, a college degree still promises a greater earnings potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $53,300. For those with only a high school diploma the amount is $32,552, a difference of $20,748. At least financially, the diploma can go a long way.