What Is College For?

In 1987, education scholars Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. co-authored a book entitled What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? The short answer: not much. Ravitch and Finn based their study on findings from the First National Assessment of History and Literature. The national history average was 54.5 percent correct answers; for literature, the national average was 51.8 percent correct answers. As they noted on page one, "in the terms traditionally used by teachers ... a score of less than 60 percent is failing."

Ravitch and Finn wrote just four years after the landmark K-12 education report "A Nation At Risk" appeared and identified "a rising tide of mediocrity" in our elementary and secondary schools. That now-famous 1983 report inspired several waves of K-12 reforms that included the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP is considered the "gold standard of K-12 assessments), National Education Goals, "No Child Left Behind," "Race to the Top," "Common Core Standards," and a host of innovations ranging from charter schools and school choice to Teach for America and KIPP.

Fundamentally, that K-12 debate has addressed what our young people should know and be able to do after 13 years of classroom experience. The focus was on what should be taught, the teachers' skills, and appropriate assessments of student learning.

Some countries, like France and Italy, administer high-stakes exit exams (e.g., a baccalaureate exam) that students must pass to pursue postsecondary education. These tests represent what a young person should know and be able to do after elementary and secondary education. We have nothing remotely similar to a baccalaureate exam in the United States, but the clumsy attempt to evolve Common Core Curriculum Standards represented a step in the right direction. We still have too many instances of social promotion where high school diplomas go to "graduates" who can't do third-grade math.

The shortcomings of our K-12 system then carry over into the postsecondary years - at considerable cost, as we now know. Too many young people enter college unprepared - unable to read or write at the freshman level or do elementary arithmetic. They need significant remedial training in areas such as basic math and writing. Of those who begin college, only 60 percent make it through to receive a degree after six years. This high dropout rate is but one of the reasons why major private foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation are investing in strategies to raise significantly college completion rates. There is little question that the country will benefit - economically and in many other ways - by having more adults with a high-quality postsecondary degree, certificate, or other credential.

Between 1982 and 2012, postsecondary costs rose four times the rate of growth of the Consumer Price Index, and twice the rate of growth of health-care expenditures. We now face a national crisis with respect to college affordability. Likewise, the $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt and rising student-loan default rates have prompted many commentators to declare a crisis American higher education.

But while we worry about rising costs, low completion rates, and poor quality learning outcomes, shouldn't we also worry about exactly what is going on when it comes to learning on our campuses? Don't we also need a national discussion about what we want our young people to know and be able to do after their postsecondary experience - an experience that is now quite costly in terms of time and money and uncertain in terms of quality?

Today's four-year college experience is extremely expensive for most American students and their families. For 2015 graduates with student loan debt, the average amount owed is just slightly above $35,000. What did all that money buy?

Was it learning? Socialization? Finding a spouse? Growing up? Getting a job?

I have always believed that postsecondary education should be fundamentally about learning - learning what is necessary to equip one for a future career (not for a specific job, but for a career that will entail several different work experiences) and also for being a well-informed, engaged American citizen.

Today, learning is taking a back seat to other activities. My daughter is a sophomore at the University of Virginia, one of the nation's premier public research universities. Shortly before this school year began, I received a "Dear Parents" letter from the university president. The letter had nine paragraphs, but only one paragraph touched on learning. This paragraph warned about "potential pitfalls" such as the "sophomore slump" and then proceeded to mention the need to select a major and how to alleviate stress if a student was not selected to join a competitive major.

The rest of the letter touched on: (1) how the sophomore year "provides new opportunities for intellectual growth, social maturation, and independence" plus new "leadership roles and greater levels of responsibility," (2) planning now for 2017 internships or summer-abroad activities, (3) making sure that off-campus living arrangements are safe and secure, (4) avoiding the chaotic, overcrowded Wertland bloc party held on Move-In Weekend that often involves underage and excessive drinking, (5) encouraging students, instead, to attend the official UVA-planned activities for that weekend, (6) reminding parents not to purchase alcohol so that their underage students can host their own parties (it's illegal, parents!), (7) raising issues associated with sexual violence and sexual assault, and (8) welcoming me to Family Weekend this November.

By my count, eight of those nine paragraphs dealt essentially with socialization. Fortunately, my daughter qualifies for in-state tuition, which means that all that socialization and learning are still, relatively speaking, affordable. But for many students and parents going to campuses this fall, the costs are much more than modest and, increasingly, the returns are questionable.

There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what college is for, and our answers must consider the rich diversity of the American postsecondary landscape. Twenty years before "A Nation At Risk," University of California president Clark Kerr published a seminal work entitled, "The Uses of the University." That study is now over 50 years old and has been overtaken by new developments. Today, we need a massive rethinking of our entire postsecondary enterprise - from the community colleges and career schools to the major public and private research institutions. Everything should be on the table: cost, years to completion, governance, access, quality, and how to measure learning. We also need new Clark Kerrs -- in academia, government, business, and in the general public -- to help us think through these vital issues.

When he was U.S. Education Secretary, William J. Bennett focused much of his work on what he called "the three Cs" of K-12 reform: content, character, and choice. As we rethink our postsecondary enterprise and what we want its graduates to know and be able to do, perhaps we should add an extra letter to Bennett's trio and adopt "the four Cs" of postsecondary reform: content, career, citizenship, and cost.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.