When I was 18, I graduated high school and went to college. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I “grew up,” all I knew was that everybody around was me telling me I had to go if I ever wanted to get a job and be a successful working-class citizen. So I went.
I chose to go to the College of Idaho, formerly Albertson’s College, because I was told it was “more prestigious” than local public offerings, it was close to home, and ultimately I figured that others matriculating at a liberal arts college would be more artsy, rebellious, and open-minded like myself. The close-knit campus of roughly 1,100 students felt like family, the cafeteria served good food, and I even got a job in the IT department that covered expenses for my dorm. I loved C of I, even if I still wasn’t sure why I was there.
Fast-forward to 2012 and I’d graduated with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing with a minor in History, evidence that I still had no clue what I wanted to do for a career. I knew I didn’t want to sell consumer electronics at Best Buy anymore, and I knew that I had about year to figure out how to start tackling my student loan debt, but that was about it. While I came out on the other side a better, more well-rounded human being, I also came out owing roughly $30,000 without many technical or employable skills, and no idea how to pay it back. I realized quickly that a college degree wasn’t a magical piece of paper that guaranteed me a job, and that without proper skills and training the odds were stacked against me. I began to wonder: what was the point of going in the first place?
Kwame Anthony Appiah writing for the New York Times raises that same question, contending that there are basically two visions of college that persist in America: Utility U. and Utopia U. The first, Utility University, focuses on teaching appropriate skills to aspiring professionals, the logical outcome being job placement and a solid, measurable return on investment. The vision of Utopia University, on the other hand, “is about building your soul as much as your skills,” according to Appiah, and about testing and developing the values that make you “you.” He puts it best by stating: “If Utility U. is concerned with value, Utopia U. is concerned with values.”
Ideally, the college experience provides a healthy balance of both, yet, as the so-called skills gap continues to widen while this nation’s political pundits are allowed to actively push racist and Islamophobic agendas, you have to wonder if students are getting adequate amounts of either. This is disconcerting, because whether or not quality of education has risen, cost of tuition for U.S. colleges and universities undoubtedly has, at a rate of between two and five percent per year for the last 30 years. If you look holistically at tuition, fees, room, and board for your average in-state public school the cumulative cost of college in 2015 was $19,548 per year. Private schools, like the one I attended, averaged almost $44,000. What’s worse is that while students and their families are paying more for their education, the schools themselves are spending less on the student.
Whether it’s due to disparity in quality of education vs. cost, or simply that too many people like me go without knowing what they’re going for, employers around the world are convinced that students are graduating without the proper skills to enter the workplace. This “skills gap” is defined by a surplus of jobs across industries that employers claim they can’t fill by hiring the average college graduate. The existence of the skills gap itself has been debated since the term was coined, with experts pointing out that businesses should be less picky about candidates and that they can do more to train new hires. Businesses point their fingers right back at schools claiming that they should either be better preparing students for job placement, or sending them to different two-year colleges or trade schools to focus on technical skills. In Texas, for example, the gap is widening most in the manufacturing, logistics, construction, and energy industries for positions that pay $100,000 per year or more.
While there’s probably no one true cause or solution in regards to the skills gap, the fact is that a college education isn’t enough to get you hired anymore, despite claims from the President himself that college is the “surest ticket” to joining the middle class. Nevertheless, the view that a college education is required to join the workforce, the same view that my parents and hundreds of thousands of parents across the nation have imparted on their Millennial and Gen Z children, still persists, albeit now with addendums. In the same way that high school is a required stepping stone to college or university, a post-secondary education of some kind, of any kind, is pushed as an intermediary stop between high school and whatever-comes-after-college, whether that’s grad school, job training, or whatever. Our national focus is less on what you actually learn in college, and more on whether or not you go, a new, twisted minimum requirement for even low-level jobs. Essentially, college is the new high school.
This Utility U. focus means that more young adults like myself simply go to college because this pay-to-play economy says we have to, whether we want a six-figure position as the CEO of a multinational corporation, or a job that pays $10/hour as a desk clerk for a law firm. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that many colleges now offer free, online MOOCs, complete with virtual classrooms, assignments, and textbook readings–the meat and potatoes of many courses–but encourage students to pay for certifications, proving that they’ve completed the course work. Only a few companies like Google are more concerned with whether you’ve actually gained and can demonstrate what you’ve learned than they are with proving whether you’ve paid for a verified certificate or degree.
My fear is that with such a focus on the Utility U. aspect of post-secondary education, regardless of price hikes contributing to rates of diminishing return, that the Utopia U. vision is beginning to go by the wayside. I’m obviously not a product of the Utility U. vision of college, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see my education as valuable. I realize now, years later, why it was wrong for me to refer to Anna Karenina as a “whore” in my Russian Literature class, and credit Professor Dixon for shutting me down when I did. I look back at that moment and see the glaring male privilege I was ignorantly and unknowingly flexing, and I’m a better man–a better human being–for it. I look back at my instruction under Dr. Islam, my readings of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Teju Cole’s Open City, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and my final term paper on Edward Said and Orientalism as essential to the formation of my current worldviews and human philosophies. In a world rife with misogyny and Islamophobia, I shudder to think of who I might have become without the instruction of not only those two professors, but of any of the professors who challenged me during my time at C of I.
I genuinely worry that these types of experiences are being traded for safety, for comfort, and for peace of mind. I get that trigger warnings are important and that microaggressions are very real (i.e. my own aforementioned misogynistic comment), but I worry that they’re also terms that are being mis- and overused to the point that it stifles academic progress and critical thinking as explored. Students who feel that they have no choice other than to attend college for its Utility U. offerings may have no interest in the challenging topics, discussion, and patterns of thought that Utopia U. presents. While I feel for them, what we all have to understand is that in an effort to insulate and protect themselves, they’re affecting many others in the process–especially when trade and technical schools already offer educational experiences that eschew controversial topics by design. To quote Lukianoff and Haidt’s “The Coddling of the American Mind,” published in The Atlantic: “The new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion or debate.”
The National Center for Education Statistics projects that in Fall of 2016, 20.4 million Americans aged 18 to 24 will attend an institute of higher education. I’ve no doubt that many of them are spurred by a socially-imbued sort of survival instinct, flocking to post-secondary educations in droves like Christmas Island crabs to the sea. Like me, they’ll inevitably begin to wonder what the point of going to college and accumulating debt, and like me, they may struggle to quantify the return on their investment. Hopefully, like me, they’ll come to the conclusion that it was somehow all worth it in the end.
Even though I didn’t necessarily embrace the balance between Utility U. and Utopia U. that C of I offered while I was enrolled, I still wouldn’t give back the experience. I had some of the best times of my life while I was there. I learned a lot about the world, and about myself. I met some amazing people, including my significant other, and while my English degree didn’t get me my first job as a web marketing and design consultant (my experience in the school’s IT department and a reference from another alum did) or give me any insight on how to start my own business (I learned that from blogs like this one), it was still worth it for me to get.
I won’t end without saying this: college isn’t for everybody. I got lucky in a lot of ways, and I have an extremely hard time advising people to go if they don’t know what they’re going for, especially when so many free alternatives like MOOCs and other online resources now exist. Still, I don’t regret going, and if I could do it all again, I would. I imagine I’d have questioned the decision not to go, had that been the case, just as much as I’ve questioned why I did.
So what’s the point of college? Utility? Utopia? I couldn’t tell you. All I can do is relay what I’ve garnered from my own experiences, and hope that post-secondary education provides as positive and transformative an experience for others as it did for me. The insights I gained and knowledge I earned all contributed to an experience that made me who I am today, and that was worth every penny.