Paying for College

I’ve only been working full time in academia for a little over three years now, so feel free to take what I say here with a grain (or bucket) of salt.

College education costs a lot. I know, not just because I had to pay for my own (back when it was cheap[er]), but because I have kids of college age. When we pay for college, what are we paying for?

The obvious answer is that we’re paying for an education. There is so much to learn and colleges are the places to get that knowledge. If we want to get the knowledge, we need to pay the college.

Not exactly. Most of the knowledge available to college students is available for free these days. Between libraries, the internet, and educated friends, pretty much anyone in America who wants knowledge, can get knowledge.

College is more than knowledge, however. We go not only to gain knowledge, but to gain skills. Again, however, at least some of those skills can be gained by other, non-college means. Some of those non-college means are even free. Others skills, however, do actually cost money. I think here of some of the skills (and accompanying knowledge) in the sciences that are gained not through books, lectures, or conversations (as in the Humanities), but through working in a lab. Labs cost money – sometimes huge piles of money, depending on your field. So when we pay for college, we’re partly paying for the labs. The cost of the lab is not merely the hardware, but also the software, i.e., humans who know how to use the hardware and can lead us in doing so.

Famously (on infamously), a large part of college expense these days is all the amenities. Dorms have to be upgrades, recreation facilities have to be state-of-the-art. All this costs money. Ok, we’ll give the colleges some money for those, too.

But maybe we don’t live on campus, or don’t care about the amenities. We’re wanting to gain knowledge in a field that doesn’t require expensive labs. We can read 5 books a week, watch the MOOC videos, engage in online conversations about all we take in. Is that enough?

Well no. At least not for most of us. Most today seem to believe that the purpose of college is to get the knowledge and skills necessary to get a Good Job. Even if we can get all the knowledge and skills required for that God Job without actually going to classes we have to pay for, and without enjoying the lush amenities, there is one thing the college offers that we cannot get for free: the certification that we actually have the knowledge and skills.  We pay the college so we can lean on its reputation to show the world that the knowledge we claim to have is real.

One reason college prices continue to rise is that the certification process is becoming more and more complicated. Once upon a time a generally recognized institution could offer a diploma, and it would mean something. There have been enough scams run over the years that the old model wore out. Each year there needs to be more detailed specification of what has been learned and how that learning can be documented. Doing all that assessment and documentation of assessment takes time – and people – and money.

But is it better than the old way? If I say that the assessment my course is that students will be able to correctly answer at least 70% of “embedded questions” on a multiple choice final exam, does that mean anything? Well, if the appropriate campus committees and authorities says it counts as real learning, then it does. Doesn’t mean that students could do as well on the same test a week, month, or year later. All it says is that when presented with the final exam, whether in a classroom, or at home with all their classnotes in front of them, they did well enough to meet the predetermined requirements of the assessment.

But there’s more to assessment than what shows up on a report card or in the issuance of a diploma. The most important part of assessment is the continuous feedback given in response to expressions of learning. I can read books or watch MOOC videos all day every day and learn little to nothing. It’s as I do something with those inputs that they become learning. Interaction with those who have traveled this way before me, often called “teachers,” is what can lead me – and others – to learn things and come to know that I’ve learned what I think I’ve learned. Feedback, and more of it, makes for real learning. If you’re looking for a real education, this is what you ought to value paying for.

Unfortunately, learning and certification of learning are not always the same thing. And the latter routinely costs more than the former.

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