What is College For?

Curator's Note

Today's post will consider the network of public discourses that attach multiple, often contradicting expectations and desires to the college experience. I am particularly interested in the focus on the rising costs of higher education, unemployed graduates and the emphasis on job-specialized majors by both Republicans and Democrats alike as a solution to this ongoing "crisis" of higher education. These issues are addressed in the documentary The College Conspiracy, a film that highlights some very serious and pressing concerns about the realities of higher education today. And, while I do not agree with many of the film's underlying assumptions or its solutions to the matter, I do think it is a film worthy of discussion if only for the way that it reflects prevailing beliefs and anxieties about higher education.

Contemporary public discourse sees a college education as primarily (if not exclusively) a means of social mobility, but only if you are savvy enough to enroll in those key majors that "will make you the richest." The College Conspiracy draws our attention to the political and economic incentives that drive up the costs of college and the false promises of higher education even when you have the "right" major. The crux of this film's argument is that education from elementary school onward is about funneling students into costly colleges, and doing so by "brainwashing" students with "useless" information. These are claims that echo conservative attacks on the "ivory tower" for being elitist, clamping down on free speech, and indoctrinating our youth.

But even within academia, there is ambivalence as to whether we are training young professionals for the job market, or if we are doing something different. Many academics argue that a college education builds critical thinking skills and prepares students to be informed, reasoning citizens (despite some uncomfortable evidence to the contrary). At the same time this noble idea conflicts with the realities of public grade school, which does arguably train students to memorize and "regurgitate" material, just as the documentary asserts. It also conflicts with the view that a lot of our students walk into our classrooms with at the beginning of the semester: the expectation that a college class is a means to a job rather than an opportunity to learn for learning's sake. These contradicting set of expectations and desires collide in our college classrooms every day. Perhaps it's time for us to seriously revisit this question: what is college for and for whom?



Laurel thank you for starting the conversation this week and doing an excellent job of framing the discussion. I also wanted to add an additional line of discourse that of the "don't go to college" and become a tech entrepreneur mythos. This is the cousin to the "go to college and network to launch your dot.com or app company." Its connected to the strand of financially driven thinking you identify but with a new media twist. As if the barrier breaking potential of the Internet is all that is needed to start a career. I think the success stories of the "didn't even go to college" tech billionaires contributes to the frustration many students feel when they enter a university and learn that the goals are different. Some examples of the media objects that engage this discourse are the new HBO series Silicon Valley, the upcoming AMC series Halt and Catch Fire and the Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn comedy The Internship (basically a long commercial about how people "who think outside the box" are the key to what makes Google so great).

Laurel, I really enjoyed your post and I think it pulled on a lot of contradictions inherent in the current expectations of college attendance. One thing I have noticed among students is a desire only to "go through the motions" of getting a college degree, because they have been told over and over again that they must attend, but sometimes they are barely passing the core requirements. Another issue that came to mind while reading your post - are the goals of a college experience that needs to generate lots of money (requiring large student loans) incompatible with the goals of learning for learning's sake?

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