Two Worlds

There are multiple views of the university and its purpose.

Uncle Johnny remembers fraternity parties, the “gentleman’s C” and leisurely student life as the be-all and end-all. Aunt Susie reminisces of working 40 or 50 hours a week on top of a full course schedule to make ends meet. Mom or dad recollect free tuition, or as near free as makes no difference. Dr. Smith encouraged students to take extra courses in mathematics, philosophy, history or religion because he thought these things were important in broadening student perspective. Professor Jones reflects passionately on prodding students to travel for the sheer joy and enlightenment of it.

Those that look ahead envision different realities of a college degree. Betsy DeVos, like her views or not, opined during her confirmation hearings, “for too long a college degree has been pushed as the only avenue for a better life.” Honesty with students and families would suggest it is one way to a better life, but only one. She continued, “this is an addiction… we need to embrace new pathways of learning.” Many believe colleges should do a better job of helping graduates find work  According to a New America study, 70% of future college goers are concerned about starting salaries, and 91% say the primary reason to go to college is to “improve my employment opportunities.”

Richard Vetter, adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, identifies seven challenges facing higher education. Among these are increasing costs, burgeoning federal financial aid and alternative means to “certify vocational competence.” The idea that college is a place to gain different viewpoints and widen perspective is shifting to a monolithic understanding of the world. Decreasing economic growth to support colleges and increasing demand driven by the ingestion of “everybody-needs-a-degree Kool-Aid” also contribute to disenchantment. Additionally, the steadfast assurance that an education provides wisdom, insight, intellectual discipline and a number of other admirable characteristics is oftentimes hollow. Frequent amoral pursuits of fame, often evidenced in intercollegiate athletics or institutional cash flow through unholy business relationships, require attention. Neglected, these are a sickness in higher education —a disease. This forward-looking view is especially troubling to universities that appeal to a wide audience without a clear vision other than bigger is better.

Insiders, university leadership and faculty want to hold on to a 20th-century view of universities in a 21st-century world. Outsiders want the value and application of a college degree to respond to a contemporary notion as certification without personal commitment.

I share many of these views from both perspectives and long for the days when anyone who wanted to go to college could afford to — even if it took working foolishly hard to pay the tab to achieve a degree that had market value. I also had the experience of studying at different institutions, and each broadened my perspective of the world. Transferring from a two-year school on Long Island to Texas A&M University in College Station was a cultural experience in and of itself. This experience changed my life, at a cost I could afford without a single loan — all counted as joy for a kid coming from a working-class family with five siblings. This is not for a split second a lament; it is rather a refresher course in US history as a baby boomer, the realization of both a windshield and rearview-mirror reality.

The reconciliation of these points of view is only possible with clear-headedness. We must tell students that some individual courses of action are likely paths to discouragement. Hiding heads in sand creates disdain for the educational-financial-political framework that created the leviathan labyrinth leading nowhere for too many. According to a Macalester University study, parents and students seek clarity on issues of transition, academic engagement, college life, relationships and home and family. An Owlcation post confirms these and other concerns of students.

An honest assessment of these two worldviews is essential from the wheelhouse of outsider and insider. Reflection, study and sincerity are particularly important for students who hail from small rural communities according to Inside Higher Education, and for those wanting to work out their faith, even in Christian institutions, according to the Christian Post.

These confounding worldviews of fond memories on the one hand and cynicism on the other are serious challenges for all. It is a bleak, but not hopeless picture, according to Catherine Bond Hill. Costs are crippling too many families, she says, and concerns regarding political correctness, academic freedom and other burning issues on campus seem frivolous or contrived for their one-sidedness. Lastly, lifetime earnings do in fact increase, whether one studies literature or computer science. Both worlds are in play if able and committed students under the tutelage of dedicated faculty shoulder rigor, discipline, hard work, and intellectual demands.

This is how universities work.

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