Are Colleges a Thing of the Past?

After School

In a recent New York Times book review, “Illiberal Arts,” Andrew Delbanco examines two books—Is College Worth It? by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol and College (Un)bound by  Jeffrey J. Selingo. In each of these books, the notion of going to college as being a life requirement is challenged. The article begins with A. Lawrence Lowell (former Harvard president) saying, “Institutions are rarely murdered. They meet their end by suicide… They die because they have outlived their usefulness, or fail to do the work that the world wants done.” The quote leaves a somber and ominous tone and segues into the introduction of two of today’s strong voices on the matter of higher education.

Jeffrey Selingo, an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, voices his opinion of why colleges (as we know them) may be seeing the last of their days. In a way, it has a lot to do with Lowell’s prediction. They are failing to do the work that the world wants done. He thinks that the way today’s colleges are awarding students with degrees is defeating the purpose of those degrees. People are receiving their diplomas based on “time spent in classrooms” rather than “competency displayed.”

In a way, I agree with him. He is right in saying that just because someone has a higher degree, does not necessarily mean they’re better at what they do. Having worked in early education, I can attest to this. Just because someone has a piece of paper stating they studied taking care of children in school does not mean they have a clue what to do with children once they are actually in the room. I would much rather hire someone who has spent more time with actual children than in a classroom reading about them.

Not to say what you learn isn’t worth anything. Theoretical knowledge, like knowing the effects television has on a young child or understanding the development of spatial awareness, is important, but that’s not going to do you much good when a child is standing in front of you, screaming his head off because you won’t let him have a piece of candy.

William J. Bennett, co-author of Is College Worth It? and former United States Secretary of Education (1985–1988), also believes that colleges are coming to an end. He mentions that he thinks that more students should be studying science, engineering, technology, and mathematics.

[Editor’s note: AfterCollege’s VP of Engineering, Steve Girolami, agrees. He shares what he’s doing to help kids develop an interest in STEM from an early age in this post.]

Bennett goes on to say that other fields are “irrelevant material.” I, of course, completely disagree. As a Creative Writing major, how could I not? I see where he’s coming from though, looking at it from an economic standpoint. It can be hard to justify sending yourself into debt for a degree that isn’t going to immediately get you a job once you graduate.

Bennett wants United States universities to mimic countries like Germany in which students are focused on one direct career path as soon as they enter the higher education system. This would perhaps be advantageous in shortening the student lifespan and lessening the amount of debt accumulated over the years. But, I for one, did not have many friends who knew what they wanted to do upon entering college. Many of those who thought they did ended up miserable in their chosen majors and switched. I can’t imagine what would have become of them had they been made to stay with their original choice.

He also considers most colleges to be places of “drinking, drugs, partying, and sex.” I can’t deny that these things exist in the college atmosphere, and if I’m honest I don’t see them as detrimental to the function of colleges. In fact, my biggest qualm with doing away with colleges as institutions is the fact that colleges are so much more than a place of academic learning. Doing away with them would be cutting out a huge portion of our psycho-social education.

Coming from an island, I strongly believe in the importance of “getting off the rock.” In my opinion, it is a crucial part of the maturation process. You have to go to college, expose yourself to cultures and places you’re not used to, and make the mistakes you’re going to make. It’s a part of becoming an adult.

I have talked to a number of adults who never left the island for school. They lived at home during their college years and regret this decision immensely. When pressed, they explain that the regret stems not only from an academic standpoint, but also in missed opportunities to experience life. They weren’t able to escape the “bubble,” to introduce themselves to music genres other than reggae, to meet people who grew up in large cities and enjoy the grit of urban sidewalks on their shoes. They never stumbled back to their dorm rooms at 3 a.m. and, upon entering, found that their roommate was already back with a Party Pack from Del Taco. The JOY! The friendship!

I just can’t picture a whole generation of adults who will be walking around without ever having experienced these things!

I can actually agree with Selingo’s theoretical model of what colleges will look like in the future. He pictures a much more free-flowing setting. Students would not be enrolled exclusively in four-year institutions. Instead they may attend a community college for a year, then they may head to a four-year university, spend time working at internships and co-ops, study abroad, and take online courses like MOOCs (for more on this, check out the panel discussion from The Aspen Institute “Will Massively Open Online Courses Transform the Way We Learn?” on The Huffington Post). School years would no longer run from September to May. There would be small amounts of time spent in all of the different mediums of education.

We seem to be leaning in this direction. The internet is a huge resource, and with the current economy, I have no doubt that more and more people will be opting for its cheaper education options. Times are changing and I am excited for some aspects of higher education to evolve as well. I think it would be great for both employers and job seekers to base hiring on knowledge and experience. But I don’t think the college system is going to completely die out. There will be no “institution suicide” as Lowell put it. Those institutions are giving the world what it wants in terms of life experience. The young adults of this country need that middle ground to be introduced into adulthood. And so I believe that colleges will remain a part of our society.

Do you think colleges are on the way out? How do you see higher education evolving in the future? Let us know in the comments!


2 Responses to “Are Colleges a Thing of the Past?”

  1. madeleine kando

    College is a very expensive and inefficient way of getting a taste of life. It’s basically glorified babysitting. Why not just travel, work, volunteer? That’s how you mature, not by getting drunk and spend your parents’ hard earned money or go into debt to pay for an experience that is a poor substitute for the real thing. College might be a way to step off of your island, but it is not the real world.

    • Kellen McKillop

      Hi Madeleine,

      Thanks for sharing. Yes, traveling, working, and volunteering are all ways to experience new things and to mature. College is definitely not the only way to get life experience.



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