The return of students to colleges and universities is a welcomed tonic for this professor’s soul, but new students arrive amid a grand debate about the future of higher education.
On the face of it, higher education is undergoing a metamorphosis. Cost-saving measures such as online learning and the ubiquity of technology might seem to make today’s undergraduate experience vastly different from their forbears’.
That is a mirage. The most essential elements of an education are unchanged.
A typical college student will take 40 courses over four years. Two-thirds of these courses are not directly related to their major, but are the building blocks of a well-rounded education. They provide skills for real higher learning and a foundation for a civil society.
The remaining dozen or so courses are dedicated to a major, but more than half are further building blocks to very specialized learning.
This leaves a handful of courses, maybe one or two professors, who make all the difference in an education for each student.
Sometimes these transformational classes are traditional lecture, though I think the better ones are truly innovative courses. The only sure thing is that they are challenging to teach and challenging to take, and that is what makes them so memorable.
It is an inelegant comparison, but real learning at a university is like weight training: It is the last bit of effort that builds strength.
Today’s students must be confused by the messages they hear about college. There is much written about the low value college offers today and the high cost. Others, like Indiana’s higher education commission, argue that every adult should go back to school over the next decade. There is a dizzying array of messages.
Not having much of an ideological ax to grind on the matter, I offer two simple statistics to new students. Since the end of the Great Recession, employment for college graduates has risen by almost 5 million jobs. For the remaining two-thirds of the work force, there are about 1 million fewer jobs.
College has always been expensive, but recent tuition increases are almost wholly due to a declining state share of expenses. This is not a criticism. Education benefits both the individual and the community, so both should pay in proportion.
Still, the best message is that it is far more costly to skip college than to graduate. But really, this debate about education shouldn’t trouble the minds of new students. There are 40 courses waiting your attention, and much to be learned in a very short time.•
Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.