07/28/2010 11:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why College Is Still Worth It

There have been several recent polls suggesting that Americans are starting to question the value of going to college. Of course, one reason for the current unpopularity of higher education is that it keeps getting more expensive, and students are having a harder time finding jobs once they graduate. However, we all need to step back and look at what higher education can do for us as individuals and as a nation.

It might be commonplace to say it, but college usually does not teach us a specific trade; instead colleges and universities teach people how to analyze, communicate, and collaborate. These critical thinking and communication skills help all of us participate in our democracy and prosper in our chosen professions. In fact, most employers say that they want new graduates to come to work being effective writers, speakers, and analyzers. Employers also hope that students not only know how to read and write, but they also want graduates to be ethical people who are self-motivated and work well in teams.

Unfortunately, many colleges and universities don't always teach students to be ethical or even to be effective writers and readers. Due to the use of huge lecture classes, multiple-choice standardized exams, and competitive grading systems, many students are socialized to be passive consumers of expert knowledge, while they compete for grades and social recognition. While some schools and some classes do stress the pure joy of learning and thinking, most institutions are stuck in a lecture and test system, and as I argue in my blog "Changing Universities," the current move at most research universities is to only support fields of study that can bring in outside funding. Moreover, due to the lack of concern for teaching and student learning at some institutions, we are seeing a defunding of the faculty and an over-reliance on under-paid part-time faculty.

Yet, even with all of the problems facing higher education, universities and colleges often do succeed in teaching young people to be responsible adults and creative and critical thinkers. Sometimes this enlightenment happens inside of class and sometimes outside of class, and sometimes a single teacher leads a student in the right direction, and other times, students discover on their own what path they want to follow. No matter how students discover their sense of purpose, college gives students the time and space to learn about themselves and the world around them.

In fact, as our society becomes more invested in high-tech surfing and multi-tasking, it is higher education that offers a chance to step back and think about how we use and produce knowledge. Not only do students need to learn how to take apart an argument, but they also have to understand how to construct their own arguments, and as knowledge becomes more interactive, we have to teach students how to be ethical and responsible knowledge workers. Once again, if it doesn't happen in higher education, where else will it happen?

As I walk around the UCLA campus, I often think that I am living in an ideal universe where people from many different cultures and backgrounds live and learn together in harmony. In fact, sometimes I wish that there were arguments in my classes and less dutiful copying of notes. Still, every year, I encounter many students who really do want to learn and who have worked hard to get where they are. In order to support and nourish these students, we have to make higher education a national priority, and, at the same time, we have hold our schools accountable to their fundamental mission.