What is the Point of Higher Education?


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63 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    One of the things I said about the point of High School made me realize that different parts of town have different requirements.

    Lower lower class: Day Care
    Middle lower class: Day Care, maybe a few students will be able to aspire to Upper Lower class
    Upper lower class: get a diploma and a job

    Lower middle class: get a diploma and a steady job (if you’re lucky, a union job)
    Middle middle class: college prep
    Upper middle class: college prep

    Lower upper class: college prep, networking
    Middle upper class: networking, college prep
    Upper upper class: Networking

    Is there a class function when it comes to college (that isn’t covered by the difference between Community College and Small Liberal Arts College)?Report

  2. Mike Dwyer says:

    I’ll open the bidding at writing a coherent and grammatically correct email, document or bit of copy. As a former technical writer who then had to train a bunch of new technical writers, only half of which actually went to college, the non-college writers were woefully prepared for the position. A good example, “Grab the packing slip from the printer,” vs “Obtain the packing slip from the printer.” Subtle, but the first example signals we just threw some instructions together and the second reminds the reader they work for a top-50 Fortune 500 company.

    Also, public speaking.Report

    • I did an MA in Public Policy several years ago. A BA/BS was a requirement to get in. About half of the students that started that year couldn’t write their way out of a brown paper bag. I was appalled. When I asked the head of the program about it over lunch one time — he invited me to lunch once a quarter or so to see how “the old guy” was doing — he said that it was a typical group.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Well, I think we all more or less agree that a college graduate ought to have mastered “adulting”.

        They ought to have figured out how to balance a checkbook, cook different meals, wash a load of clothing in such a way that none of the items are unwearable afterwards, use an alarm clock, and shower every other day, maybe.

        But I wouldn’t say that a student who graduated not knowing how to do one of these things (or more) has been failed by his university.

        It is not the job of the university to teach you how to, oh, make pancakes.

        But it strikes me as crazy that half of the students wouldn’t be able to write their way out of a paper bag. Were they statistics students?Report

        • George Turner in reply to Jaybird says:

          Here’s a cooking video was made by a college professor upon finding out that his students didn’t know how to make simple snacks.

          You might want to click through because the comments are hilarious.

          The original doesn’t have the background music that is worthy of Schindler’s List


          • Jaybird in reply to George Turner says:

            You know what? He’s doing the Lord’s work.

            There a bunch of kids out there who don’t know how to do this and he gave an unpretentious video explaining how.

            People like that make the world a better place, dang it. That’s one hell of a professor there.Report

          • George Turner in reply to George Turner says:

            He is. He runs a cooking show on the student TV station at Weber State University in Utah.

            But more than that, he gave the Internet a wonderful performance, worthy of Spielberg at his best, and the comments on it are killer.

            “Steven… your wife and child just died in a car accident. We understand if you don’t want to do this video today.”

            “No. I-I must show my loyal viewers how to feed 3 – 6 people for roughly 6 bucks”


            his hunger will go away…but not the sadness


            think I would have started crying if he had dropped something and broken it.


            He should have taken the scalding hot chili and cheese out of the microwave with his bare hands, just so he could feel something.


            He says it will feed 3-6 people but we know there aren’t any other people. The food will fill his belly but nothing can fill the hole in his heart.



            for 3-6 people? not fooling anyone, anyone who is making this, this way, makes it alone, eats it alone, and dies alone.


            The secret ingredient is despair.Report

  3. fillyjonk says:

    I don’t know that I see a BA/BS difference necessarily, other than maybe, in my field (Biology), BS would require more math and higher-level technical stuff (e.g., maybe biochem instead of just organic chem). But more generally:

    (Added: for those unfamiliar with me, I am a bio prof at a small regional university. I am mainly involved with ecology (and ecology accessories))

    1. Write a coherent short paper either arguing a topic or including research from a variety of sources. That includes being able to read at a sufficient level in one’s field to understand the information, synthesize it, and paraphrase it. (I was having a discussion elsewhere with someone who asked about “is it normal in biology for people to just quote blocks of text in a research paper” and my response was, in short, “ha ha ha NO” and the conclusion was the student in question didn’t understand what they had read well enough to paraphrase). Being able to write sufficiently-standard English in order to be comprehended.

    2. Be able to determine “fact or crap,” as regards sources. ESPECIALLY online material because it generally does not have the level of peer-review “officially” published papers (under the aegis of a journal) have. But also to recognize that some journal articles that get published are not all that great.

    3. To be able to do some basic mathematical operations as applicable to their specific subfield. So that would include some basic geometrical understanding in ecology (for example: computing basal areas of trees, figuring out a density measure for a species….there are probably other things I am not thinking of)

    4. Have a working knowledge of basic statistics, including understanding how people can “massage” data and manipulate statistics. Be able to evaluate a standard sampling plan so it’s possible to determine if a project is well-designed or not.

    5. Understand the basics of scientific ethics, e.g., truthfulness in reporting data, citation etiquette, etc.

    6. Have some experience with, and comfort in, public speaking. Being able to prepare a short talk over one’s field (whether that’s a summary of one’s research, or a “general interest” talk – like “frogs of our region” – for a general audience)

    7. Be familiar with some basic field/lab techniques used in their specific subfield. (heavy duty specialization is for grad school; the general techniques and also “what’s a graduated cylinder used for” is more applicable in undergrad)

    8. Be generally somewhat comfortable with doing what scientists do. (I get an awful lot of students these days with *very little* lab experience, and sometimes even in junior-level classes I have to do a first-day thing about “if you want to measure out an amount of liquid with accuracy, use a graduated cylinder, beakers are just for holding stuff and you can’t trust the gradations on them”- one of my pet peeves because so many people aren’t aware of this)

    9. For field biologist: SPECIES IDENTIFICATION. I don’t care if there are apps for that now. They don’t work all that well.

    I don’t know what else and maybe parts of this list are a little highfalutin’, but I’m assuming this is a student who is planning on at least going on for a Master’s degree and then will either work for an agency or teach at some level (where most of our Conservation grads go). For “regular” biology, maybe also some of them go to industry though most of our “non conservation” majors go to medical/dental/PA/pharmacy/etc. school.

    Also now we are seeing more concentrators in Botany, because medical MJ industry, but I think my list stands for someone who might want to run a grow operation – with the addition that they should take some business courses, especially if they don’t plan to hire a full time accountant.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to fillyjonk says:

      This is an awesome and comprehensive answer… what percentage of your graduates in any given year can do each of these?Report

      • fillyjonk in reply to Jaybird says:

        At all, or well?

        I’d say “extremely well,” maybe 15% to 20%, if they don’t slack off in classes. Competently? Maybe 75%.

        A big part of it depends on how much work the student is willing to put in. As I’ve said over on a college-educator forum where I hang out, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t shove its head under the surface while screaming “DRINK, DAMN YOU!””

        My department is full of good instructors who care a lot about what they’re doing, but the students have to meet us (at least) halfway.

        there’s also a lot of “forgetting.” I get people in a second class that I had in a first class and I have to remind them that beakers aren’t for measuring.Report

        • fillyjonk in reply to fillyjonk says:

          Also I find the “determining ‘fact or crap?'” the hardest thing to get people to learn in any consistent way. It may be that by your late teens it’s too late to learn it, i don’t know. I remember my dad doing basic “fact or crap” “games” with my brother and me when we were kids, like looking at ads and analyzing “how they are trying to get your nickels” (to use the parlance of a shade Sesame Street character from back in the day)Report

          • Jaybird in reply to fillyjonk says:

            I probably have a little more leeway in my definitions.

            If a 23 year old graduates college unable to tell the difference between facts and crap, I’m not sure that I would conclude that they’d been failed by their college.

            I mean, if I were, I’d quickly come to the conclusion that only a handful of people have not been failed by their colleges.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to Jaybird says:

              I disagree, I think that being able to parse fact from crap, and parse source authority, are fundamental to a college education.

              That fact that so few can do it does show that, in that respect at least, most colleges have failed their students.


              • Jaybird in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                As a crazy person, let me say that I suspect that the ability to parse fact from crap would work against the goals of the college/university itself.

                As such graduating students who cannot do it is doing something that is in the college/university’s best interests.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to fillyjonk says:

          I’m only looking for somewhere around “competently”, I think.

          The event that triggered the first (high school) essay was the discovery that there were districts in Warshington DC that were falsifying records and graduation rates went from 70ish% to 40%ish percent. *LOW* 40ish. And so I was stuck thinking about that number and boggling at the number of students that were completely failed by the system.

          I wonder how many college students might be completely failed by the system.

          I also know that, yes, students in college have to meet professors halfway and this and that and so college doesn’t map to high school in that area… but I assume that a college student that doesn’t give a damn is a lot more likely to drop out or change majors to something like “Philosophy” than to power through a BS (like, by definition).Report

          • fillyjonk in reply to Jaybird says:

            “Liberal Arts and Studies,” aka “choose your own adventure.”

            (I’m needlessly snarking; some people who do that make some really interesting and cool interdisciplinary majors, but it does also allow someone, for example, who doesn’t want the “hard” classes in a major to do “LA and S with concentration in (whatever)”)

            there are also of course the “gut majors” at every school. They might differ between universities but everyone on campus more or less knows what they are.

            We have had the argument about “retention vs. rigor” with the administration; fortunately our current administration realizes that “hey, the people who actually graduate are getting good jobs so probably it’s best not to push for making the major any easier”Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to fillyjonk says:

      This is a good list, but I’d like to propose a generalization:

      Be able to identify a need, develop a plan for addressing that need, gather the necessary resources and put that plan into effect, monitor the performance of the plan (correcting deficiencies, optimizing where possible), determine whether the need has been sufficiently addressed, and do all of this without close supervision.

      As opposed to a high-school student, who could probably engage in self-directed action so long as they were given a detailed plan beforehand. Or a lower-grade student who would need something like “okay, now pick up the graduated cylinder with your left hand, and pour in the water…keep pouring…keep pouring…and STOP”.

      A high-school graduate with experience might be able to do those things in a limited area (say, a mother tending to children, or a mechanic working on cars) but the idea of walking into a completely new situation–or something more abstract, like politics or creative art–would be more like we’d expect a college graduate to handle.Report

  4. Murali says:

    I have a BSc in Life Sciences. 9 years ago, I would have been half-way competent in a lab. Now, I have been doing philosophy (i’ll defend my PhD thesis 16 days from now) so I’m not even sure that I am better than a lay-person.

    I suppose that the the primary purpose of a bachelors is to prepare someone for a masters or PhD course. If I can’t hack a Masters’ course even though I supposedly did very well at the Bachelors level according to my university, then it failed me. Jobs wise, if I can be a competent lab tech, research assistant, pharmaceutical sales rep or secondary school teacher, then I wasn’t failed by the university.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

      Hey, best of luck on that! Let us know when we should start calling you “Dr. Murali”.Report

      • Murali in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Thanks Mike. My participation here will become more regular once my defence is done.Report

        • CJColucci in reply to Murali says:

          What is your thesis on? Good luck with your defense.Report

          • Murali in reply to CJColucci says:

            What is your thesis on?

            On the standard version of political liberalism, there is a public justification requirement according to which laws and policies are legitimate only if they are justifiable to all reasonable persons. On the standard way this is cashed out, laws cannot be publicly justified if they are based on moral or religious doctrines which are subject to reasonable disagreement. In my thesis, I argue, firstly, that the standard version of political liberalism presupposes that people can rationally disagree* about a proposition even if they have the same total body of evidence and, secondly, that people cannot rationally disagree about a proposition if they have the same total evidence about it.

            Good luck with your defense.


            *This part is partly about arguing that the most plausible way to interpret reasonable disagreement in the context of political liberalism is as rational disagreement between (morally) reasonable persons and partly about arguing that the standard way in which reasonable disagreement is accounted for is compatible with disagreeing parties having the same evidence.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Murali says:

              Interesting! I’ve already come up with a couple of ways that your thesis could be abused by Nazis.Report

              • Murali in reply to Jaybird says:

                Its needless to say that even though I consider myself a political liberal, I don’t endorse the standard account.

                Here’s what the standard account gets right. I think that there is a public justification requirement. I think that rational disagreement undermines public justification. But the connection between liberal laws and the public justification requirement is nowhere near as direct or simple as is supposed in the standard version of political liberalism.Report

  5. Doctor Jay says:

    Here’s what a college degree says to me:

    1. You can learn about a topic mostly from reading and listening to lectures.
    2. You can get yourself through your list of responsibilities without much nagging.
    3. You can manage multiple threads of responsibility and carry them all forward to completion at roughly the same time.
    4. You can execute projects with a minimum of oversight and coaching.

    These are not small things, and it isn’t exactly hard to find people who can’t do them, are aren’t willing to accept that level of stress/responsibility.

    Obviously, there is content that’s relevant, particularly for STEM fields. But people retool and make lateral moves all the time. Which is why #1 is really important.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      I would tend to agree.

      And, using those definitions, I’d say that Community Colleges are as likely to have graduates who can do all four competently as SLACs or Ivy Leagues are.Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Jaybird says:

        The value-add of an Ivy League has two components:

        1. It is a certification of the fact you were able to gain admission to an Ivy League College.
        2. It gives you access to the alumni network. For Harvard at least, (and I’m not a grad, I just know several) this is not a small thing.

        The 4-year degree indicates that you’ve gained, let’s call it journeyman-level expertise in one subject. A CC degree does not.

        The first programming language is by far the hardest one to learn, and all the rest are easier, and perhaps this concept generalizes. So I’m not quite willing to say that CC equal SLAC. Obviously the price-performance of a CC is much, much better, though.Report

  6. Aaron David says:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

    ― Robert A. Heinlein

    College should allow you to become the insect.Report

    • I suspected someone would quote that, though my money was on the guy named after a Heinlein character. Note that technically that’s a quote from Lazarus Long, though in this instance I think he and RAH agreed, since RAH had done most of those.Report

      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        Obviously I love that quote, but there are a few items in that list that should probably have an asterisk (e.g. ‘plan an invasion’, or ‘conn a ship’).Report

        • We are all shaped by our education, and Heinlein went to the Naval Academy. Some of the effects of his time there show up subtly. He was on the fencing team at Annapolis. The sword scene in Glory Road was clearly written by an epeeist, as was the description of foil fencing in “The Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail” in Time Enough For Love:

          …the foil was a lightweight toy, a fake sword with a limber blade that bent at the slightest pressure. The stylized imitation swordplay that used the foil was about as dangerous as tiddlywinks… It was made for him. The highly artificial rules of foil fencing gave great advantage to fast reflexes and a sharp brain, both of which he had.


        • “Hey, ship, wanna buy a bridge?”Report

  7. George Turner says:

    Okay, I’ll come out an say it. A person with a BA or BS from a major university, especially in the humanities or business, should be able to explain to me, in clear English, how Best Buy’s warranty option actually works.

    That’s cruel, but accurate.Report

    • You mean in the sense of Homer Simpson’s “Extended warranty? How can I lose?” ?

      Heh. (The last time I was at Lowe’s buying…I don’t even remember what it was but it was something that was like $30, they tried to get me to buy the ‘extended warranty’ and I gave them my best “You HAVE to be kidding” face)Report

    • Doctor Jay in reply to George Turner says:

      This made me smile, George. But the truth is I know everything I need to know about any Best Buy warranty. Which is: No, thank you. I pretty much never buy extended warranties. They are a bad bet overall.Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Doctor Jay says:

        When I worked at Radio Shack we got a bonus for selling extended warranties, presumably because they were something like 90% profit.

        On the other hand I’ve bitten at Wal-Mart cuz they’re pretty cheap, like $5 on a tv.Report

        • Something over 30 years ago, when Hewlett-Packard was known for expensive high-quality scientific/engineering instruments of various sorts and mini-computers, one of the sales guys told me, “You know what the biggest profit center in the company is? Extended warranties…”Report

          • Road Scholar in reply to Michael Cain says:

            Yep. It’s an insurance policy. But there’s no market because there’s no competition and they have all the data on failure rates and repair costs. The customer has no clue and an extra $20 on a $500 purchase doesn’t seem nearly as overpriced as it really is.Report

            • J_A in reply to Road Scholar says:

              When I was deeply in power distribution utilities, the second largest revenue line, after selling electricity, was late fees.

              It was a surprisingly large amount of money for nothing.Report

  8. Gary Kemper says:

    There is no good answer to your question. If there were a test to determine if someone deserved a college degree students would find a way to pass that test but that wouldn’t determine their worth in real world situations. Colleges’for the most part have become an arm of the Democrat/Socialist/Liberal machine. They use students to get money from the Government through student loans that many will never pay back.

    Colleges push a liberal agenda that makes students feel they are more caring and more educated than they really are. If you see where college students are interviewed ,many are so ignorant they couldn’t offer a working solution to any problem facing our Country.Report

  9. Saul Degraw says:

    Saying that there is a one overriding point of higher education in a country of over 300 million and thousands of institutes of higher education is kind of an impossible task, no?

    Community Colleges have different goals than State Universities. State Universities might have similar but somewhat different goals than private institutions of similar caliber. Julliard has a different purpose than Caltech. M.I.T has a different purpose than Amherst, etc. Then you have graduate school.

    Ideally the purpose would be a combination of the practical (“skills to succeed in the marketplace” combined with a “relatively safe space to learn adulting”) and the abstract (“encourage mastery of an academic subject and/or a love for intellectual learning.”)Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      So should I have said something like “maybe we can make distinctions between types of colleges/universities”?

      Fair enough. Let’s say that I did say that. Is there a set of skills that a graduate can be said to have been failed by the college if s/he graduated without said skills?Report

    • The overriding point of higher education at the moment appears to be mostly monetary. Not at the student and faculty level so much, but certainly at the leadership levels. Higher Ed could be debated how far between “Business” and “racket” it is trending on the Hoffer Scale, but “cause” was left behind long ago. But perhaps obscene profit is more permissible when it is horded into endowments, skyrocketing administrative costs and salaries, and other such things – all shuffled through tax exemptions – to some folks.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Andrew Donaldson says:

        As someone once put it, Harvard is a hedge fund with a university attached. Some rather clever business people learned that running a university is a great way to make bank. Federal student loans provide a near unlimited spigot of money. You can charge the tuition you like, hire a bunch of adjuncts, and as long as the services are nice enough, pay yourself a rather handsome salary.Report

    • Aaron David in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “relatively safe space to learn adulting”

      Considering that people graduate high school at, give or take, the point of adulthood, don’t you think that maybe, just maybe we should have taken care of that a while back?Report

  10. Dark Matter says:


  11. Pinky says:

    The goal of a degree is that the graduate can think as the people do who work in the field of his major. Any answer beyond that is just details. Sure, you want a graduate to be able to write, do math, and solve problems, but that’s true for any field, and the standards are particular for each field. A chemist, a musician, and a philosopher have to be able to solve different kinds of equations.

    The only point of dispute I can think of regarding my stated goal is how much learning in other fields is expected of a college graduate. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to appreciate a more classical education. If I were founding a college, I’d have a curriculum that’s half in the chosen major and half Great Books.Report

    • George Turner in reply to Pinky says:

      Another requirement is that the graduate meets the much stricter academic and intellectual standards for playing in the NFL, as opposed to the NBA where a single year of college is fine.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

      Back in the olden days, the line was “University will not make you a banker. University makes you clubbable. The Club will make you a banker.”

      So is the point of college is to pre-socialize you to the job you’re likely to get? I mean, I can see how the above would be true for, oh, Yale or something.

      Is it true for Compass Directional State?
      And is it true for a degree in Underwater Basket Weaving from Compass Directional State?Report

      • Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

        I’m not talking about pre-socialization. To think like a member of one’s profession is different from developing the manners of other members of one’s profession, or getting to know them in an informal setting. I mean that the banker needs to understand double-entry bookkeeping, business, economics, whatever else. A person can become a competent banker if he has the training to address problems the way a banker would. Ultimately, the pre-socialization and benefit of credentials will only get a person so far. Even Cosmo Kramer can get a white-collar business job, but he can’t hold it.Report

      • Dark Matter in reply to Jaybird says:

        So is the point of college is to pre-socialize you to the job you’re likely to get?

        That was from the days when college was a huge “signalling” thing and Compass Directional State didn’t really exist.

        There are different clubs now and different signals, and/or only certain colleges networks count.Report