08/12/2014 02:45 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

College Education or College Degree?

Digital Vision. via Getty Images

What do students want in exchange for all of the money that they pay for college? Is it a degree or an education?

Gather any group of college professors in any discipline in any part of the country, and most (if not all) have noticed a mindset affecting many college students in which they seem to value their degree more than their education.

As an example of how this mindset manifests itself, college professors can almost certainly count on the following question being asked most every semester (usually by multiple students):

"What grade do I need to earn on my next assessment in order to have a grade of X in the course?"

As a mathematics professor, this is disturbing for several reasons, not the least of which is that college-level students should possess the mathematical skills needed to determine the answer to the question for themselves. Students enrolled in College Algebra, Statistics, Calculus and above should already know how to use the weights provided in a syllabus together with their known grades in the course to answer their own question.

An even more disturbing consequence of such a question is the eagerness to know the minimum performance necessary to achieve the desired grade. This mentality focuses on how little the student must learn rather than how much the student can learn.

This certainly seems to be an indication that the end result (degree) is more valuable than the journey (education).

Does it matter if a student knows the grade he needs to earn on the next test in order to make an A in a course, for example? Does knowing the answer to this question really affect a student's performance?

  • First, if the answer to the question is beyond what the student feels he can achieve, then he will likely not even prepare for the assessment.
  • Similarly, if the required performance is less than what the student feels that he can achieve with little to no effort, then he will also likely not prepare for the assessment.
  • Finally, if the student feels that he can attain the desired grade with a reasonable amount of preparation, then the student may prepare, but knowing the needed grade should not influence the amount of preparation.

Since full-time students must manage their time and resources between multiple courses, it is logical to conclude that each course may not receive the same level of attention as other courses. Knowing the required performance on a particular assessment may influence the amount of time spent preparing for each course, but determining the minimum preparation time for each course is an extremely complicated problem.

It is difficult to determine the minimum effort needed to please parents with decent grades or to pass courses so as to simply not have to retake them. Therefore, the pertinent question that students should be asking themselves should be:

"Is a grade in a course, which leads to a degree, less or more important than the knowledge acquired from the course, which leads to an education?"

How students answer this question demonstrates whether they place more emphasis on the short-term goal of a college degree or the long-term value of an education.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.