Make College Worth It

Special Focus : What is the Value of Higher Education?
Higher Education October 19, 2015

I am the youngest of seven children from an agricultural province in China, and the only one to have made it to college. The late 1980s in China was a time of transitions, when the government started to let students fund themselves through college, as compared to the previous decade when tuition was minimal. Our family were earning very little then, therefore the tuition problem loomed large with the prospect of me going to college, though my parents were determined to send me there. Fortunately, our high school found us an opportunity to enter a university with no tuition or college entrance exam for students who were among the top 10% in GPA in class. It sounded too good to be true, except that the institution of choice was a teacher-training university. Students equally qualified as I was declined the opportunity in anticipation of better financial prospect in professions other than teaching, but I took the opportunity, got my degree, went on to graduate school and eventually came to the United States, where I have been working ever since.

In my days it was not an option to debate whether college is worth it. College was one of the two ways – the other being enlisting in the army – for a boy from rural China to achieve some kind of social mobility. Other prospects were not very bright: I could stay on the farm or become a migrant worker after graduation. In our time college would almost certainly pay off as any job would be better than being stuck as a farmer, facing restrictions all around in China’s rigid residence system. 

Fast forward 25 years. Today I find that people are not sure anymore of investing in college. Job situation has flipped. Decades of one-child policy have dwindled the labor surplus that equipped China to become the factory of the world. Migrant workers are in greater demand than college graduates. Rather than a ticket to success, college is a stock that eventually will rise in value if one holds it long enough. Unfortunately, most college graduates have to cash it in when life presents more imminent needs: housing, marriage, and children. With such needs coming concurrently or in quick succession, talk of college’s long-lasting value sounds hollow, pretentious and often infuriating. As we Chinese often say, a man with his belly full will not understand the pains of a hungry man. In the Chinese blogosphere, there is a strong sense of frustration and cynicism among college students, who bemoan the fact that children from the rich and powerful families can get ahead no matter what happens, while those from ordinary families cannot even get started.

Practical concerns with survival reduced Chinese students to “polished narcissists”, a phrased coined by Professor Qian Liqun of Peking University in his frustration with the loss of idealism. College students are wrapped around themselves, their certificates and their jobs, with little interest in changing the world around them for the better. In the United States, William Deresiewicz calls Ivy League graduates “entitled little shit”.  Not very complimentary either if you ask me. In the US, students accumulate disabling amount of tuition debts that will haunt them for years to come. After Ramen noodles and shared dorms, what else can one sacrifice, other than ideals?

It is unfair to blame an educational system’s failure on the system’s victims. Do not judge college students for their obsession with success and apparent lack of idealism. They deserve to survive, and for that they pay a hefty amount of money to learn from colleges. For the cost they have to bear, it is only fair to expect colleges to prepare them not only for their fourth and fifth jobs, as Harvard president Drew Faust described, but their first ones, which as a matter of fact should rightly be their first priority. 

Many students leave their colleges completely unprepared for the very first jobs. Or there are not sufficient jobs available as economies change. Worldwide, there is much talk about entrepreneurship. I sometimes suspect it is a thinly veiled admission of failure to create jobs for the young. Even if the economy really shifts gears from finding to starting jobs, are colleges ready to prepare them for that?

If colleges fail in this regard, is it worth it? We probably should not dwell too much on whether college is worth it. It is worth it when people make it worth it. Colleges should be held accountable for changing their practices to better prepare students for their future near and far. Here are a few ideas that I’d like to share to make colleges worth it.

Redefine curriculum. Educators should in their curriculum design consider the reality that fewer and fewer jobs are permanent, organization-based jobs. This is not to say that colleges should teach whatever skills the job market dictates, as all such skills have expiration dates. Quite the opposite, students should master a body of knowledge with which to navigate ambiguous, uncertain, volatile environments. I disagree that colleges should focus only on content-free skills such as creative and critical thinking and problem solving. You cannot teach such things in a vacuum. Instead, teach students a broad base of knowledge. Help them also to make connections between their knowledge and the skills their future will demand of them.

Change instructional practices. The traditional seat-time paradigm is increasingly losing relevance. This is a time of abundance. It is not effective, nor moral, to deny students the opportunity to learn something online from someone who could teach better than you do. Teachers ought to broker knowledge and skills to students and allow them to study via multiple paths to learning. Teaching output should be replaced by learning outcomes, which in turn should be replace by professional competencies.

Focus on teaching. Why should students pay 40,000 dollars a year to attend a college when most teachers spend their waking hours thinking about their papers and presentations and books, and do the bare minimum to teach and mentor students. It filled me with fury to see that in the “publish or perish” culture, students seem like necessary evils for a teacher’s day. Surely some research work has an implication on teaching, but more often, it is just administrators’ wishful thinking. In some worse cases, students become cheap labor for professors to advance their own agenda. If people cannot focus on teaching, by all means let them focus on research or their external commercial projects. Let those passionate about teaching teach.

Redefine scholarship. Performance evaluation for teachers needs an overhaul. Consider incorporating alternative or emerging forms of expertise. The universities I went to, for instance, rewarded teachers for publishing papers, no matter how bogus and useless they are, while ignoring work other than published “research” papers. When I was in graduate school in Nanjing University, my advisor Professor Liu Haiping involved me in a project to translate a biography of Pearl Buck, which became such a rich experience to learn the English language, cross-cultural studies, literary history and so many other things. The experience changed me permanently and turned me into a lifelong translator and cross-cultural communicator. Important as it is, universities rarely consider translation work in tenure and promotion decisions, mostly because committees lack the expertise to evaluate such works. Such evaluation is based on convenience, not a thorough examination of what actually matters to teachers, and indirectly, their students. 

Incorporate practical expertise. Speaking of tenure and promotion decisions, the singular focus on terminal degrees rather than broad expertise should also change. Enlarge definition of scholarship by including practical expertise. Do not join the chorus to accuse colleges of hiring of adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty members holding other “day jobs” may better prepare students for their future, while some tenured experts are actually horrible teachers.

Make students competitive. Colleges often try to stay competitive by offering “state-of-the-art” facilities, such as hotel-like dormitories, shiny gyms and stadiums, as well as safety nets to keep students from failing, including inflated grades and various support services. How about investing to make students competitive, by training teachers to be master teachers, and by challenging students to become ferocious learners?

Cultivate lifelong learning skills. Eventually students will have to become lifelong learners, and colleges should help with that. China has no shortage of self-made entrepreneurs, such as Luo Yonghao (high school education), the legendary English teacher and Internet phenomenon, and Mo Yan (elementary school education), a recent Nobel Laureate. These people teach themselves all the time! In my own family, I marvel at one of my sisters, who taught herself to become a wedding gown and then interior designer without having obtained any higher education. If colleges haven’t paused to ponder why these self-starters succeed, they should now.