Revisioning the University, Part 2: Extra-Educational Motives for College Attendance
The first post in this series argued that the brick-and-mortar university is obsolete in its current form, because modern technology makes it unnecessary. Free, or nominally priced distance-learning courses are an alternative. As proof of concept, a later post constructed a sample liberal arts curriculum using existing high-quality video courses, with an estimated cost of $400/year.
Given that viable alternatives exist, why do young people still feel compelled to attend status quo corporate-style universities, even if that means paying insane tuition? It seems we must look to motivations beyond the simple wish to gain an education, i.e., to explanations in terms of emotional, social, and ‘intangible’ factors. Let’s consider a few of these.
Rite of Passage
Every young person instinctively seeks to gain social recognition – i.e., some form of achievement such that society will say, “you have arrived at adulthood.” This seems a basic requirement for self-esteem, at least in our society. Graduation from a college or university can meet this need for achievement. That is reasonable in itself. But the question must be asked: should we really subject students to massive debt merely for this purpose? Other ways to meet the need are possible (climbing Mt. Everest, hiking the Appalachian Trail, going on a mission, starting a business, completing a Great Books list, etc.)
We should add that there is both a good and a bad form of this. The good form supplies ways that young people can derive *genuine* self-esteem by accomplishing something beneficial to others. The bad form is elitism, whereby a person does something for the sake of gaining status. Modern universities appeal to this elitism.
Socialization and Partying
Clearly many students see college largely as an opportunity for socialization and partying. The former is arguably productive, or at least benign: young people make friends, join clubs, participate in intra-mural sports, etc. However this often degenerates into a partying lifestyle. Not only does that serve no productive purpose, it means that, in the case of public universities, taxpayers are required to subsidize this kind of atmosphere. This is also unfair to those students who approach college more seriously.
Delay of Entry to Workforce
If there are no jobs, society must have some way to handle the surplus labor. Colleges can be misused for this purpose.
Today’s public elementary and secondary school education, combined with the dumbing-down forces of modern culture generally, have potentially left young people today less emotionally and intellectual mature than in previous generations. Not really knowing who they are or what they want, students attend college for indefinite periods, hoping to eventually ‘find themselves’. However, all too often what happens instead is that they acquire the habit of laziness and lack of focus.
Transition from Parental Household
A seemingly minor point, but actually fairly important. If young people didn’t have some convenient and non-threatening way to move out of the parental household, they might stay there indefinitely. So young people and parents alike have this tacit incentive for the former to move off to college.
Having noted a few of these secondary motives for attending college, we can ask: is there some alternative way to address these without making young people pay enormous college tuition?
Of course there are, and if society tried, it could come up with better solutions. One simple example would be a program of nature camps, whereby young people (e.g. ages 18-20) spend a year or two living and working, say, in the mountains somewhere. Nominally, they’d do things like building trails or planting trees, maybe train in athletics. Informally, they could socialize, party, become more mature, etc. At least in the past, this paradigm was followed in certain Scandinavian countries.
Another alternative would be to encourage a wanderjahr abroad – informal traveling, perhaps organized around some theme of interest, like historical sites, national capitals, or museums.
Once they’ve sown their wild oats and gained maturity, young people could return at age 20 or 21 to begin their college education in earnest. When I taught I was strongly impressed by how much this age difference helped in terms of student focus. For example, students who started college after military service just breezed through courses; it made teaching much easier.
The bottom line is that we can separate the educational purpose from certain unnecessary social functions of the modern college. By addressing the latter in other ways, we should be able to make the educational function of colleges much more efficient, and can reduce tuition accordingly.