I have always loved this time of year as the fall semester begins. A new school year offers the opportunity to start fresh, to pursue new goals, and to renew friendships with students and faculty alike. This year is no different.
Yet, despite this sense of renewal, I am nevertheless struck by the persistence of challenges that seem never to be resolved. Among them, I am most concerned about the debate balancing the cost vs. the quality of higher education.
I think most of us in higher education would agree that the cost of tuition at most universities is rapidly making a college education unaffordable for students from poorer families, and this is resulting in diminished access to higher education for just those students who might benefit from it the most. Many universities would justify that increased cost by pointing to the very real ways that the quality of the education they deliver is more rigorous, more oriented toward discovery and scholarship, more career-directed, and more global than it has ever been in the past. And this does not even consider the expense of building better classrooms with technology, residence halls, dining areas, and recreational facilities that are part of almost every university.
All of these developments incur costs that go beyond simple course delivery. So no matter how much I ponder the question, I cannot conjure a magic solution for lowering the cost of a college education. But that exercise is not a fruitless one; indeed, it has caused me to devote some thought toward what it is about a college education that makes it worthwhile.
Our life’s work as educators is about learning: learning through research and discovery, learning through reading, analysis and creative thought, learning through discourse and debate. And through our work at the university, our purpose is to share that learning — and hopefully our love of learning — with students.
But our students also learn from each other. Besides the academic topics that we as scholars find fascinating, students also learn many important life skills in college: they learn about teamwork, leadership, deadlines, communicating clearly, thinking critically, networking with peers, and accepting constructive criticism. They learn how to delve deeply into a subject, become an expert, and synthesize new analyses and perspectives on that subject. All of these skills will serve them the rest of their lives, no matter what academic concentration or career a student might pursue.
The key point is that students pick up these skills, not because they have taken a prescribed number of courses, but because they have undertaken their studies in the college environment. Ideally, they learn these skills as part of the personal development that comes from achieving a partial independence from their families, and engaging in activities that mimic the real world— in an environment where it is (relatively) safe to make mistakes. And, yes, they learn these skills under the guidance of scholars who have themselves made similar mistakes and learned from them.
That is college.
Creating the environment in which such personal development can take place is not easy, and unfortunately it is not inexpensive. And while some aspects of such an environment might be simulated online, I believe that the development of many of the life skills cited above would be significantly limited in a virtual setting.
So, is the quality of a college education worth the amount of money that we charge for tuition and fees? Obviously, that is a question that each student’s family must consider. And I imagine that they will balance that value judgment on the quality of the educational experience and learning environment that we provide, as well as on the enhanced career opportunities that our graduates enjoy.
I leave it to those of us who are part of the university’s community of learners and scholars to consider: what can we do to ensure that the answer is “yes”?