Is College Over?
The public, in other words, is increasingly wondering what it is they’re paying for—as they’re paying more and more. They’re losing faith in the system. The disturbing financial implications of the rising cost of college are well documented: The cost of public and private colleges has tripled since 1980; over the past decade, the average cost per year of a public university jumped from 18 percent of a middle-class family’s annual income to 25 percent; the average student loan debt is now $23,000. But the rising skepticism about the value of the college experience itself is unsettling, particularly in Boston, where much of our economy is rooted in the university system.
I went to school here myself—literally buying into the notion that college was a worthwhile investment when I arrived on the Boston College campus. I continue to pay for that investment, and will for the foreseeable future. But in the wake of this educational crisis of confidence, I’ve found myself wondering how much I really got out of the whole thing.
And I’m far from the only one. As a result, universities are being forced to ask, perhaps for the first time, How much are our students really learning? Can our teachers actually teach? And what, exactly, is the point? So I set out for some answers. Because faith isn’t enough anymore. We want proof.
ARRIVING HOME EARLY early from high school one afternoon in the spring of my senior year, I went through my daily ritual of peering into the mailbox. Please, God, a sign of any kind. Finally, I got one: a big envelope. I collapsed to my knees on the brick walkway leading up to my door, tearing the envelope right down the center. I pulled out a folder and touched the raised seal of the college of my choice like a palm reader seeing the future. Relief and excitement and hope all washed over me. I had gotten in.
College was the golden ticket, the payout for slogging through high school’s tedium and testing. I didn’t have much say in where I went to high school—I was a public school kid with public school teachers for parents—but the college decision was mine, and it would catapult me into a future that I could define. Walking around campus a few months later, as I toured the athletic facilities, dining halls, and libraries with other recently accepted students, I was smitten with the idea of the new life I would have…and with the cute guy on my tour, who was also in my freshman class. We exchanged e-mails: “I can’t wait to party with you in the streets of Boston,” he wrote. (We never actually connected once classes started.)
It’d be easy to blame my hormones for the fact that I didn’t pepper the tour guide with dozens of questions about academic programs and my soon-to-be professors. But the truth is, I simply took it for granted that I was about to get an excellent education. Everyone from my guidance counselors to magazine rankings had told me so.
But as Academically Adrift’s findings prove, learning is something we can no longer assume is simply happening. And that means colleges are now having to defend themselves against a swarm of newfound skeptics.
Wanting to learn more about how the institutions are attempting to fight back, I call up Richard Hersh to arrange an interview. Hersh and his colleague, Richard Keeling, are coauthors of the upcoming book We’re Losing our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education, and together they’ve consulted with nearly 400 colleges across the country. Our impromptu chat ends up lasting nearly two and a half hours.