Summer Reading: Is Your Degree Worth It?

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You sure you want that $200,000 hat?

Whether thoughts of the coming year bring joy or fear, recent months’ debate over the value of higher education should give you good reason to have second thoughts. Bwog daily editor Matt Schantz reviews the literature.

Richard Heffner, host of PBS’s Open Mind, began an interview with former Dean Moody-Adams with a provocative quote form MiMoo herself: “Some contemporary critics will wonder whether any liberal arts education can ever be anything more than a ‘remnant of economic privilege.’ Moreover, in a time of extraordinary economic upheaval and crisis it is not unreasonable to ask the larger question of whether there is an appropriate fit between the ideals of a liberal education and the broader demands of a sometimes brutal market economy.” Moody-Adam’s response to these critics: a confident “yes.” She asserts that a liberal arts degree is both economically viable— Columbia provides students with “intellectual cognitive capacities that will suit them well whatever line of work or profession they choose”— and anti-elitist. The liberal arts endow all students with cultural capital (a fancy word for the ability to name drop with the best of ‘em) regardless of socioeconomic background. Yet Moody-Adam’s argument, long the prevailing mantra of the liberal arts education, has come under close scrutiny recently, in part due to an alarming statistic that’s been making the headlines.

In Academically Adrift, sociologists Josipa Rosksa and Richard Arum examine the current state of higher education using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a test designed to measure critical reasoning administered to students as incoming freshmen and a second time after they’ve completed sophomore year. According to their results, 45% of students don’t learn anything in their first two years of college due to lack of rigor. Students studying the liberal arts who took classes that required more than 40 pages of reading a week and writing more than 20 pages a semester improved the most. The statistic was the perfect sound bite to ignite further debate around an already hot topic. While some critiqued the methodology and recommendations of Academically Adrift, almost all agreed that higher education in America is broken.

William Deresiewicz argues that the problem facing today’s universities lies neither in the lazy student nor the aloof professor but in the corporate business model that many universities have recently adopted, in his article for The Nation, ‘Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education’. Universities are relying on grad students and part-time faculty to do the heavy lifting, taking away opportunities for newly tenured professors (of which there are fewer and fewer) and creating a self-defeating cycle. Meanwhile, hiring of non-faculty personnel has exploded. Deresiewicz argues that tenure is not the problem but the solution; if profit-minded universities are to change, professors must use the great security tenure has given them to create those changes from the inside-out.

In his review of Academically Adrift, Peter Brooks argues that it is not tenure, but the growing gap between public and private universities, largely caused by the divide between America’s wealthiest and least wealthy (elegantly layed out here by our own Joesph Stiglitz), that is the greatest challenge to higher education. His argument resembles Deresiewicz’s but is fortified by a more focused critique of Academically Adrift in which he examines the origins of the CLA test. Margret Spellings, who popularized outcomes testing like the CLA was a vocal critic of higher education, and its questionable metrics.

Academically Adrift concludes elite colleges “do not create distinctive lives and careers” based on a survey of the ‘73 class of Princeton. Brooks concludes that the problem of America’s universities is symptomatic of the wealth gap, and only by addressing the larger issue can anything be done to fix higher education.

In his New Yorker article ‘Live and Learn,’ Louis Menand, unlike Brooks and Deresiwicz, accepts the conclusion of Academically Adrift and wonders if the liberal arts education is not meant for all. Menand identifies three main arguments for why higher education matters: it provides the raw material out of which grades are made, reinforcing the meritocracy; the liberal arts offer exposure to timeless and beautiful thoughts which all deserve to explore (the view taken by Dean Moody-Adams); college provides training for future employment. The liberal arts only has a place in the former two philosophies. Jamming a LitHum syllabus down the unwilling throat of someone who is only attending college as part of a path towards, say, beverage management (Menand’s example), may not be fruitful both because it wastes precious teaching resources and if the student is not willing to put in the work there is no outcome. Menand proposes that the liberal arts still matter but should not be obligatory. Many professions do not require a college degree but applicants are forced to have them in order to be competitive, the system needs to be redesigned to provide the liberal arts for those who are motivated and an alternative for those who are not.

And the debate continues! Just two days ago The New York Times published a Room for Debate in which several educational authorities from technocrat Peter Thiel to our own Judith Scott-Clayton were asked whether “our society devote[s] too much time and money to education.” Those who say yes point to skyrocketing tuition rates, the disconnect between university learning and job skills, and draw parallels to the housing bubble. The naysayers point to the lower unemployment rate and higher salaries of college graduates.

One of the sole voices of dissent, The New Republic columnist Kevin Carey, dismisses the recent crop of stories as unoriginal and alarmist: the same story has been told for decades, he argues. Such articles will always draw readers because recent grads and their nervous parents enjoy seeing their anxieties projected onto the national stage. But his argument that colleges grads all eventually find their way to meaningful nonprofit consulting jobs because “that’s how things work out for people who get college degrees” is both an elitist oversight and a misreading of the larger questions examined by others. There has never been a question over whether highly motivated, engaged, well-connected students will make it in the real world (nor do the results of the CLA suggest so), the better question, the one that many responses are trying to explore, is whether a liberal arts degree makes sense, economically and philosophically, for those at public and less-prestigious private institutions, and if it is, then how can we change the system to make those degrees better.

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  1. Anonymous

    40 pages a week < 60 pages a night. </3 CC

    • Was it?

      As students at a university, currently working toward our degrees, shouldn't we be taking some time to familiarize ourselves with the issues and debates revolving around our education system and, perhaps more importantly, our education systems relationship with the economy at large?

      Maybe it's uninteresting for some people, but it's totally not pointless.

  2. Anonymous

    40 pages a week?!

  3. easy answer

    SEAS degrees are worth it, as we now have jobs. other degrees, well...

  4. Anonymous

    The minute you start factoring money into the picture, then of course a liberal arts degree may not be worth it. But one can have greater priority in life than one's bank balance. Cultural capital, cognitive abilities, however you want to put it. Although I'm not really such a person and do mind if my salary will justify the education, I can see the point from the other side.

    • Anonymous

      i really think the kind of disingenuous posturing that goes on at columbia that liberal art majors somehow endow you with 'cultural' capital needs to be stopped. i've met both woefully ignorant people in traditional liberal arts majors and incredibly informed ones in technical majors. if someone is interested in something, they will find a way to learn it . yes you should keep in mind your employment opportunities after college if your dad doesn't have a trust fund. if you're trying to use your major to just cruise through college and party for four years, then maybe you shouldn't be here in the first place. there was a really good quote in the recent nytimes article about the debate on a college degree and i'll just reproduce that here: "To exalt the philosopher and scorn the plumber, as John Gardner once said, results in a society where “neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

  5. Anonymous

    As much as I like MiMoo and will argue endlessly for the merits of a liberal arts education, there is nothing "anti-elitist" about a degree from Columbia.

    • hmmm

      It's an elitism of merit, not birth-- except for the inheritance of intelligence, by which standard any achievement that requires a combination of talent and hard work qualifies as "elitist," and according to which we should become a society that embraces mediocrity in every walk of life under the banner of "egalitarianism."

      • please

        shut up and punctuate you pretentious shit.

        • Anonymous

          It’s an pretension of merit, not birth– except for the inheritance of intelligence, by which standard any achievement that requires a combination of talent and hard work qualifies as “pretentious,” and according to which we should become a society that embraces mediocrity in every walk of life under the banner of “modesty.”

          • Anonymous

            I'm not telling you to be modest, I'm saying your fucking syntax and lack of full stops makes it impossible to make sense of what you're saying.

          • hmmm

            I didn't say you were telling me to be modest, but that the modesty you claim is false. You'd be wise to learn how to stop expressing confusion or disagreement in curse words before your time at Columbia is finished.

        • hmmm

          You get the society you deserve, Mr. or Mrs. "modest."

      • Anonymous

        You've been fooling yourself if you think there's no elitism or discrimination by birth, income, and class level in Ivy League admissions. To point out just one of many loopholes in this supposedly fair and equal system, those who do not apply for any financial aid have a much higher chance of getting in to the school of their choice. Add that to the ability to go to an excellent public or private high school and spend summers taking SAT classes instead of working and you have an upper- or upper-middle-class candidate who's a shoe-in for places like Columbia. Sure, there's your token hard worker from a poorer background, but they're few and far between.

  6. CC11

    Just saying, Columbia maybe got 10 pages of reading a week out of me, if it was sometime around mid terms or finals. They got their papers, I got my barely made it GPA, a diploma and a 100k job destroying the world that has nothing to do with my degree. But I'm happy as shit every other friday, and can't even recall 10% of the titles of the books I bought for the core

    • Anonymous

      you mean to say you didn't love the oh-so sacred core? oh the horrors (waiting for the core-vangelists come out and dethumb this post...)

    • Cc11

      0 for 14? Nice! Dont be hating on me because you worked hard for some dipshit professors with over inflated egos, then graduated to find yourself unemployed and on food stamps. Maybe you should have spent less time listening to dumbshit liberal professors, reading the communist propaganda they assign daily and spent more time in the city meeting execs while you were in school, who will hook you up because your networking skills and not some meaningless gpa. Also, guess what??? Yesterday was payday bitches and I'm pretty sure the taxes that came out will cover food stamps for 14 people. Want to know what's next in your lives? You vote for obama 2012 dreaming about fat welfare checks for yourself, while trying to teach some poor hs kids Plato because the only job you could get was through teachers for America.

  7. JG

    I am a CC graduate from 1984. I have had a very successful career in a field that has nothing to do with what I studied at Columbia. But, I cherish my liberal arts education. It has helped me understand the world and it has given me the ability to educate myself to deal with the new challenges I always face.

    Many of you students at Columbia will realize what you have gained by your CC education only after you graduate. You will then find that there are very few people in the working world with an education anything like yours. It may be elitist, but your education will help you cope with the world we live in. For some, your education will help you thrive.

  8. Please.  

    There are many schools without a Core. You can go there and get preprofessional degree if you like. But don't come to Columbia, and then complain about its most special attribute, you fucking Ivy whores. It is not for everybody, but YOU chose it when you enrolled in the College. Don't ruin it for those of us who want it because you chose the wrong school.

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