What is a college education? Or, what should it be? As for-profits once again come under fire, we spent some time discussing this with colleagues at the AIR Forum in Denver last week, and the answer really seems to depend on who you ask. Ideas ranged from the ability to be employed, contributing to the human store of knowledge, applying life skills from the “college experience” in a post-college setting, to maybe college just isn’t for everyone.

I used to ask this question on the first day of each English course I taught: Why are you here? On this campus, and in this class? It was their first in-class writing assignment of the term, and then we would discuss. Many of their answers mentioned learning and getting a job, but very often students would simply be honest and say because someone (usually a parent) “made” them come. While it is to be applauded that parents see the value and opportunity in a college education, choosing what comes next after high school can be more complex than just “going to college.”

A student’s view of higher education

The most memorable answer I ever got to the question was from a 20-year-old student at a community college where I taught as an adjunct. He shared his story with the class, and I have shared it countless times since. He did all right in high school, but found school in general to be pointless and boring. His parents wanted him to go to college and had the means to send him to a good public university, but he didn’t see why he should waste four years doing that when he could start earning a living (and his independence) right away. Since that was his plan, he didn’t work very hard on his grades, because he didn’t feel he would need them. After graduating, he got an entry level job on an oil rig. It didn’t take him very long to realize that wasn’t where he wanted to be. The work was intense, demanding, and yet not very rewarding; not something he could do for the rest of his life, no matter how good the pay was. As soon as he was able he returned home and started college; his hopes were to do well at the community college and transfer to an engineering program. He said he was in my class to learn whatever I had to teach him, and I don’t think I have ever seen a student so open to learning.

How college can be defined

I share this not to say that his experience is what a college education is or should be, but that he had to arrive at that answer on his own. Skills, abilities, preferences, personalities, aspirations, means, and a number of other things go into answering the question of what a college education is, and what that may (or may not) look like for an individual. The answer for a single parent will likely be very different than a recent high school graduate. Luckily we have a wide range of “answers”: two-year, four-year, public, private, vocational, online, in-person, etc. But first, each person must ask the question.

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