The question of what a college should be is all the more important in our era of rising tuition costs and student debt. And figuring it out shouldn’t cause us much trouble.
What almost everyone would say, I think, is that we need good teachers who are accessible to students; a large number of small classes (with a smaller percentage of larger ones and online offerings for the sake of convenience); good enough facilities to conduct experimental research; opportunities for informal discussion among diverse peers; and a place to sleep and eat near classrooms and laboratories. Secondary to all this would be options for specialized interests like theater, music, political forums, and sports. This hierarchy of priorities is commonsensical and were it respected (eliminating the need for expensive athletic programs and for luxury dorms, gyms, and dining halls, except where a large endowment permits), a good college education could be provided at reasonable cost. It’s the trappings, and the competition to enhance them, that has inflated the price and thrown into question what an education should entail. If we kept to these priorities, the added expense involved in supporting need-based tuition would not be an inordinate burden on most schools.
Ivy League and newer, richer universities set a standard for amenities that other schools clamor to approximate. U.S. News & World Report, a publication that seems to exist purely to promulgate its yearly college rankings, creates these rankings based on complex algorithms. When you consider how the rankings are done, you see that so many variables are being weighed as to render the generalized final ranking meaningless. Yet the rankings are taken as absolute expressions of value. The desire to rise a few rungs on the U.S. News ladder drives many of the administrative decisions colleges make in the way of hiring, enrollment, campus construction, and campus life.
The reason college presidents and administrators bow to the U.S. News rankings is that parents and students rely on them as a starting point in their college search. It’s not just that the magazine has undue influence on a student’s choice of college; the very categories it highlights have become the rubrics for determining value.
In the process, the priorities for what an education should look like get lost. How do we recalibrate what is meaningful, and subordinate what is less so? It will take courage to bring us back to a more sensible view of education. It will mean a willingness to forego the lemming-like mentality that prevails in college marketing, and hold stubbornly to the balance between what is most important and what is secondary. Someone needs to take the lead here—but who?
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