Julie A. Nelson
Economics for Humans
More than 40 years ago, there were 2,329 colleges and universities, approximately 1 for every 85,000 Americans. Today, there are well over 4,000 schools, the ratio dropping to 1 for every 75,000 Americans. In fact, the percentage of Americans who graduated college has jumped nearly threefold over that period to reach 28 percent of those over 25 years old. Colleges have diversified as well. At the start of the civil rights movement, African Americans constituted fewer than 5 percent of the entering freshmen class. By 2007, that figure was up to 13 percent, roughly mirroring the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population. Women, especially, are attending college and graduate school in record numbers. Female students now outnumber their male counterparts at every level of postsecondary education except in doctoral programs.
All around there are signs that college is more welcoming to Americans of all stripes. Gone are the days when only the rich and well-connected attended college. Today, three-quarters of college enrollment occurs at state institutions, where, not coincidentally, tuition is lower. Our colleges and universities also are the envy of the world. According to the Department of Education, foreign enrollment at U.S. schools continues to rise, hitting a record of over 600,000 students in the 2007-2008 academic year. “In today’s competitive international environment,” a State Department representative says, “the increase in enrollments… demonstrates again that the U.S. remains the premier destination for international students.”
This is all well and good, but the looming question for prospective students like yourself is whether college is right for you. Do you need a college degree to succeed in life? How valuable is a college education? The trick is separating the two questions. Contrary to what you will hear from most high school guidance counselors, a college degree is not an absolute requirement for professional success. It’s more like the multivitamin you may take. Will it absolutely prevent a cold? No, not by itself, but it certainly helps.
Census surveys continue to show that college graduates earn more than those who do not attend college; the most recent figures reflect a difference. The salary gap widens with even more education. According to 2005 census data, “workers with an advanced degree [earned] an average of $74,602, and those without a high school diploma [averaged] $18,734.” But these data may obscure the fact that college students are a self–selecting lot. As one critic explains, “You could lock the college-bound in a closet for four years, and they’d still go on to earn more than the pool of non-college-bound—they’re brighter, more motivated, and have better family connections.” Consider that some of the wealthiest members of society have dropped out of college to start their own businesses. Bill Gates, a creator of Microsoft; Larry Ellison, who cofounded Oracle; Steve Jobs, the innovator behind Apple; and Michael Dell, whose computer company bears his name, all made millions without a college degree. If you’re motivated, have an entrepreneurial streak, and can create a winning business plan, perhaps college isn’t necessary for you.
My guess, though, is that this description applies to just a handful of eighteen-year-olds. For most of us, a college degree is a prerequisite for many of the higher-paying jobs in society. Plumbers and auto mechanics earn an enviable wage, electricians and computer technicians are in demand, but unless you’re prepared to start your own business and make money as an entrepreneur, most of the jobs that pay best require that college sheepskin.
I hate to lead with money as the justification for college, but there is no denying the fact that college is expensive. The average “list price” for private college tuition in 2007 was over $20,000 a year, with public schools averaging a little more than $6,000. Taken over four years, you could buy several luxury cars or put a down payment on a house for what you or your parents will spend on college tuition. The question, of course, is whether college is worth this amount.
You hardly will be surprised to hear that I think it is—but not because college lends itself to a ready cost-benefit analysis. We’re not selling automobiles; we’re in the business of hope. I first heard this expression from my mother-in-law, who served as a college president. Certainly, President Obama has spoken about “the audacity of hope,” a “belief in things not seen, a belief that there are better days ahead.” The line may make for good politics, but it also holds true in American higher education.
Anyone who sets foot on campus arrives with hope in her eyes—the hope for a better life. For some students that will be measured in raw dollars, their internal actuaries calculating how much more they will earn over a lifetime with a college degree. Other students hope to improve their social standing, the white-collar world of a college degree being more appealing than the life they have known. For others, college is about skill development, learning how to think and communicate better. And for another group, college is about expanding one’s mind and experiences, from exposure to new ideas in the classroom to the growth that occurs from living in the dorms with someone of a different ethnic background. None of these motives is exclusive, for most students come to campus with a variety of goals. Professors understand this, even if we would prefer to envision our students enrolling simply for the love of learning.
Is hope naive or, even worse, elitist? Just the contrary. Go to New York Harbor sometime and read Emma Lazarus’s inscription on the statue that lit the way for many of our immigrant ancestors: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” America is all about hope—the hope that dreams will bring a brighter future—just as American higher education is about the hope of a more rewarding, meaningful, and even profitable life. College is elitist, but not for the reasons you may think. We’re not sitting around in our ivory towers sipping sherry in tweed jackets tsk-tsking about the unwashed masses. That image is best left to Hollywood’s B movies. Rather, we’re trying to will the best out of life—a better understanding of human behavior to make life more rewarding, scientific and medical discoveries to improve conditions on the ground, and meaningful interactions to enhance personal insight.
Sure, on the hierarchy of human needs, education is not a top priority, ranking above such basic necessities as food, water, security, and belonging. But civilized societies are concerned about people’s higher needs, including esteem and fulfillment, and education is directly tied to each of them. College is a place to grow, to nurture your skills, to develop confidence in your abilities, and to put yourself on the path to an interesting and engaged future. It’s hardly a wonder that 89 percent of college graduates in a national poll said the experience was worth the expense. It’s the “goofy and formative experiences” of college, as one recent graduate put it, that make the experience so worthwhile.
College, of course, is not for everyone. If you were a poor student in high school, the academic demands of a traditional four–year school may be too much at first. If you lack the motivation to study hard and keep up in class, then those tuition dollars likely will be wasted. Or, perhaps the idea of spending four years of your youth caught up in books and classes sounds like punishment. But my hunch is that at some point in your life you will start wondering, “Is this all there is?” You’ll go to work, hang out with your friends, look after your family, and this will be fine for a while. But over time you may get dissatisfied, feel closed in, want to expand your horizons. That is where college comes in. Whether you test the waters with a single class in your field or jump into a new degree path, hope and curiosity are likely to get the better of you. Hope of expanding your career possibilities, curiosity about new ideas, and both as you envision a better life for yourself.
There are many paths to colleges, not all of them a direct line from high school to college hall. Even if you think you are unprepared for college study—and research shows that an embarrassing number of admitted students are lacking—there are options to making it in a four-year college. Some students begin first in a community college, building a solid base of academic skills before transferring. Others take advantage of writing and learning skills centers on campus. These and other options are described in greater detail in chapter 6. For now, let me at least plant the seed that college can be for anyone who is motivated, curious, and willing to work hard. With plenty of financial aid options available at most schools, the only real roadblock to a college education is discipline and dedication.
If you have been admitted to college, especially if the admissions process was competitive, you were likely a good student in high school. That’s the good news; you’re almost assuredly capable of being a competent college student. But college is different than high school in so many ways. There are all of the social adjustments to make—living on your own (if your school is residential) and perhaps far from home, taking responsibility for your own needs, and making new friends. Looking around campus, the student body may also appear to be quite different from your high school class. If the admissions office has done its job well, your college classmates will be a diverse lot, encompassing different races and ethnicities, family backgrounds, and opinions. Learning to navigate among such diversity is one of the unique challenges of college.
Perhaps most significantly, academic life can be quite different from what you were accustomed to in high school. The first difference is that you will spend much less time in class in college. If you were like most high school students, you had to attend class for about six hours per day. Of course, you may have had some free periods, but you were generally expected to be in or around the high school building, if not in class, for about thirty hours each week. In college, you will likely spend about half that time in class. Most college students take between twelve and eighteen credit hours of classes each semester. A credit hour is a rough approximation for how often a class meets each week. So a fifteen-hour course load—which you generally must average each semester to graduate in four years—translates to fifteen hours of class each week, or three hours per day if you were to take classes each day of the week.
Many college students (and, ahem, several professors as well) try to arrange their schedules so that they do not have to take classes on Fridays, but even if you’re squeezing those fifteen hours of class into four days each week, it still has you registered for a little less than four hours of class per day. Remember that thing called the eight-hour work day? You’re looking at a class schedule that will have you in class for half of that time, and that’s not even taking classes a full five days per week.
I can hear parents cringing about now, wondering just how much partying their children will squeeze into the remaining twenty-five hours in a typical work week. The truth, however, is that college is structured so that for every hour a student spends in class she should have another two hours of preparation to keep up with the material. That means reading, writing papers, and studying for exams. So actually, the free time is not as plentiful as it first might appear. A student taking fifteen hours of coursework is looking at another fifteen to thirty hours per week of preparation outside of class. That adds up to thirty to forty-five hours of schoolwork each week. Suddenly, college looks more like a full-time job. But what makes college work different from a job, or even high school, is that students have the freedom to “time shift.” If you would rather play Ultimate Frisbee in the afternoon and study late at night, that’s your choice. If you want to go to a party and then stay up the rest of the night to complete a paper, you can try that as well. There is no reputable professor who would recommend this strategy (more on that later), but the point is that college students have tremendous freedom to structure their days as they please.
Ah, but here is the rub: just as you have the freedom to choose when to study or, indeed, whether to study at all, no one is going to run around with a net waiting to catch you if you fall. At some smaller schools the faculty may monitor your progress and even intervene if they see you falling behind, but no one will stand over you insisting that you complete your assignments or appear in class prepared for the day’s material. This is a virtual certainty if you attend a large university where professors do not keep close tabs on your performance.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t care. Just the opposite—we all would like to see you succeed. But in a class of a hundred or more students, we do not have the time to mentor each of you personally, nor should we be expected to assume a responsibility that, in college, is yours. If you would like to play around that’s your prerogative, but do not expect a professor to rescue you from yourself at the end of the term when you have not attended class or have failed to turn in the assignments. Illness and family emergencies are one thing, which generally will earn students a deserved extension, but irresponsibility will get you nowhere. Ask your parents about the scene in the movie Animal House, in which John Belushi’s character receives the news that he is being expelled for a grade point average of 0. “Seven years of college down the drain” is not a line you want to hear yourself uttering, and I assure you that your parents are even less excited at the prospect. So one of the first challenges you must recognize about college is that it’s up to you. If you go to class, if you do the reading and take notes, if you complete your assignments on time, then you are likely to prosper in college. But—and I’ll say it again—the responsibility is yours.
You’ll also find a difference in who is standing at the front of the college classroom teaching you. Contrary to high school, where you may have been taught mainly by women, many of your college professors will be male. Most, too, have earned a PhD in a substantive discipline. Your high school teacher, by contrast, may have had a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the subject she taught—or in a completely different field—and, depending on the state, she may have needed additional classes in educational theory and practice in order to earn a teaching certificate. College professors face no such requirements. In fact, one of the little secrets of college is that few professors receive much preparation in teaching before they first head into the classroom.
The situation varies by the kind of college involved. Small liberal arts colleges, which market themselves on the availability of personal instruction, often spend considerable time coaching their new faculty in teaching. But at large universities—where the appeal is breadth of subjects and famous researchers—professors are sometimes thrown into the classroom right out of their doctoral programs without any mentoring or preparation on teaching. The reasons seem to be twofold. First, faculty at large universities are rewarded for their research more than their teaching. Rare, in fact, is the research university that takes teaching into account to the same degree as research when promoting faculty. Second, academe seems to assume that new professors have picked up the secrets of teaching by observation while they were graduate students. The logic, of course, is shaky, but at several large universities faculty receive too little preparation.
This is not to say that faculty at large universities are poor teachers. Many—because they are naturally interested in the process of learning—figure out how to be effective instructors. Some come to this naturally. Some even work at universities that have come to recognize the importance of training and mentoring faculty members in the art of instruction. But it would not be surprising to find that the great researcher, the faculty member who has won national prizes for his publications, is actually a mediocre instructor in the classroom.
This is not necessarily unreasonable. What your high school teachers never faced was the pressure to conduct research and publish findings in addition to teaching you. At every university, and at many liberal arts colleges as well, faculty are also expected to advance knowledge through their own research. Indeed, as I have said, this is the first priority at many schools. Young faculty members are often hired on what is known as a tenure track, meaning that they are working toward a process five or six years down the road in which the school will decide whether to keep them permanently, a process known as tenure. Faculty who receive tenure are afforded a number of job protections that insulate them from outside pressures while pursuing their scholarship. But to receive tenure, professors must spend considerable time conducting research, writing up the results, and submitting their papers and book manuscripts to be considered for publication.
You have undoubtedly heard the expression “publish or perish,” which explains the pressures on young faculty members to conduct research and publish their findings or fail to be promoted. What you may not understand is the extent of those obligations. Most of us outside of liberal arts colleges are expected to publish two articles a year or one book every two to three years. But unlike those essays you’ve written in high school in which you cite various authors for their observations, professors are expected to generate new ideas or uncover original findings themselves. They must perform experiments, conduct surveys, review archival documents, or create entirely new theories, which they must then summarize in forty pages or so. But that’s just the beginning, because they must also convince a peer–reviewed journal to publish their work. This is the most excruciating part of the publication process. A professor sends his article to a journal. The editor reads it first to decide whether it meets a threshold of originality and merit. If she thinks it reasonably promising, she’ll then send it to two or three anonymous reviewers—other professors in the field—who will read the piece and comment upon the methods, findings, and presentation of the piece.
Invariably, the reviewers will seek revisions in order for the piece to warrant publication, which actually is the good news, because in the majority of cases the journal will reject the piece for publication. So, the author must begin the process anew at another journal. It’s a bit like book publishing, in which a promising new author must go through several rejections before finally finding a publishing house that will take a chance on her. Now, imagine having to do this twice a year for the rest of your career. Not so easy, huh?
Don’t get me wrong. Almost all of us who are professors like our jobs. We have chosen this career because we value a life of the mind, because we treasure the independence to study what interests us and advocate for what we believe without censorship, and because we like teaching and training students. But this is not the breezy existence that some critics like to think we inhabit. Although, like our students, we have the ability to time shift—to work on that article at eleven o’clock at night rather than at two in the afternoon if we prefer—the work obligations are substantial and seem to grow each year. In my own case, I find myself busier as a professor than I was years ago as a lawyer. I’m also paid substantially less than I would have been had I continued in legal practice. But I’m in the classroom because I want to be, as are the vast majority of my colleagues you will meet in your academic career. So when you walk into your course that first day and look up at the lectern to see the face of your instructor, remember not only that we’re trying to balance a lot in addition to teaching you, but also that we are looking forward to spending the term with you. This is what we want do, not something that we must do.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 7-15 of How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying): A Professor’s Inside Advice by Jon B. Gould, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2012 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)