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Dr. Lawrence M. Schall Headshot

What Is the Promise of College?

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In Sunday's New York Times, Frank Bruni writes eloquently about "The Imperiled Promise of College." He begins with these sentences: "For a long time and for a lot of us, "college" was more or less a synonym for success. We had only to go. We had only to graduate." I have little quarrel with most of what Bruni writes. He's rightfully concerned about the escalating costs of college, college debt burden, the weak economy, and the number of under-employed and unemployed college graduates. His advice to young men and women today? Don't dare major in a subject like sociology. Instead, pick something like computer science or accounting, where jobs are easier to find. He even suggests using government funding of student aid as a way to steer students into fields of study that will serve them and society the best.

I do have two pretty significant beefs with Bruni. First is his use of the word "we," as in all "we" needed to do was to go to college and graduate and success would come. The "we" he is referring to is him and me -- young, white, middle- or upper-class boys whose path to college and success beyond college was virtually a lock, unless we did something utterly counter-culture. The path for others in this country has been a whole lot less clear. In some cases, it was blocked by laws; in others, just hindered by culture, custom, or institutional racism and sexism. And the colleges he is thinking about include the Ivies, little Ivies and Ivy want-to-be's. Bruni certainly is not talking about community colleges, where the "other" "we"s end up in school. Bruni is not the first author to talk about higher education as one thing, one system, but that does not excuse the error. As a system, education in this country, including higher education, is incredibly complex and diverse and ought never to be treated with a single broad brush. And in my opinion, the fact that just attending college no longer leads some of us to a life of success is not such a bad thing. Today and in the future, it's more about learning, achievement, hard work, and commitment. I kind of like that shift.

Here's beef No. 2: A couple of decades ago, everyone started majoring in business. Maybe 10 years later, communications became the hot major. That's supposedly where jobs were easiest to find. I suppose that, in Bruni's words, this mass movement to the fields of business and communications was serving our students and our country best. As a president of a university, who has seen a whole lot of job applications in his lifetime, I can assure you this is not the case. A year ago, we posted a job for a senior communications officer. I looked at close to 300 cover letters and resumes, most of which came from communications majors. In the end, I could have written a book about the decline of American education and of America itself based on this single job search. Can no one construct a sentence anymore? (Well, at least one candidate did, and we gleefully hired him.) Success in life has less to do with what major a student selects at age 20 than it does with whether that student is actually educated while in college.

I spend an awful lot of time talking to 17-year-olds and their parents about college choice. Most of those decisions today are more influenced by cost, facilities, and the success of athletic teams than they are by the quality of education offered. Too many families are more focused on making sure their son or daughter gets that first job out of college than they are in ensuring they will have a lifetime of success. The students who graduate from Oglethorpe about which I have no worry are those that have worked hard, become passionate about something, learned to think critically, to communicate their thoughts coherently, and have begun to master adaptive and creative skills. It's almost irrelevant in what subject they have majored or minored. College ought to be about getting an education and about learning to become a more informed and engaged citizen. If we lose that dream, I think we are all in big trouble.