Knowing both how and why

As has been well-covered throughout the media, student loan interest rates stand to rise markedly unless Congress takes almost immediate action. While it is doubtful that the present era of anti-intellectualism will provide such impetus, it’s pretty clear that something needs to be done about college as a general construct.

In the first instance, there’s a divide between those who think college is a panacea and those who think it a waste. Both positions are right. They’re also both wrong.

If you’re a higher performer at an elite school and you happen to study in one of the au courant “STEM” fields, your ticket is pretty much written. If you’re a poor kid, likely saddled with aforementioned loan debt and you majored in classics at a regional state school, let’s hope you have some sort of innate mechanical or technical ability on which to fall back.

Many journalists and scholars focus on this “what college buys you” angle. It’s predicated on the assumption that the sole purpose of completing college is to get a good job — so you’ll be able to aspire to all the other aspects of the American middle class fantasy.

Reporting for the New York Times, Catherine Rampell interviewed several education experts about the costs and benefits of college. She notes that low-income students have reduced college completion rates compared to their more affluent peers. Cost may be a driving factor according to Tom Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst with Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a newsletter.

Mortensen goes on to observe that low-income students are less likely to graduate from high school than more affluent students, less likely to enroll in college after high school and less likely to graduate from college after enrolling. Only about 1 out of 10 Americans whose parents were in the lowest income quartile held four-year college degrees by age 24 in 2011; the comparable share for people from the highest quartile was about 7 in 10.

Privilege has always been privilege.

The National Center for Education Statistics released a report this week that showed marked disparities between races as well. Studying 25 to 29 year-olds with a bachelor’s degree or higher, the NCES notes that almost 60 percent of students who are of Asian or Pacific Island descent earned a degree, whereas Hispanics are in the mid teens and blacks in the mid 20s. Whites in this age group approached a 40 percent rate of degree completion.

While degree completion and job acquisition are vitally important aspects of this issue, there’s another — arguably much more serious educational emergency. A 2011 study by New York University sociologist Richard Arum concludes that large numbers of American students didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education.

Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills.

Interestingly, Arum also concludes that students who study alone and engage in fewer social activities tend to fare better in terms of grades and the above-referenced set of critical skills.

This in itself goes to an important, but typically devalued aspect of a college education: the person who only knows how to do something stands to suffer when technology changes around them. The person who knows why something happens typically has more options.

College shouldn’t be about producing students who are just technicians. It should be about producing whole people who are capable of critically analyzing the world around them. The former just sit mouth agape as television news tells them what to think. The latter decide for themselves.