For the past few years, my university has provided a service called the Collegiate Readership Program. The program supplies daily issues of the New York Times and USA Today periodicals, in an effort to keep the student population informed and involved in the world they live in.
But over the past two weeks or so, the number of papers available has been dwindling, down to only a dozen or so in one building on campus. Now, this would be quite understandable if my university had fallen on hard times… but it definitely has not. The school, a fairly small private university in the Pacific Northwest, has had a veritable explosion in attendance numbers; my freshman class is the largest in the school’s history, and next year’s class is expected to be 20% larger than mine. To add to this, the school has a number of well-off benefactors and sponsors for all kinds of programs, and it’s expanding a number of facilities, especially its athletic programs. The school will have a football team (and a brand-new field) by 2013, and is planning two new living halls and a brand-new student union building.
So why the cutback on something as simple as newspapers, when the school is doing so well and expanding so quickly elsewhere? I think this frustrating evaporation of my favorite newspaper from campus marks a frightening prospect about education as a whole: Many people don’t seem to be at college for an education, and many colleges don’t seem too concerned about providing one.
I see this terrifying trend not just on my campus, but in universities across the States. More and more, young people (I know, I’m a young person too) seem to be choosing their colleges based not on the school’s academic strength or educational opportunities, but on how many bells and whistles are stuck on. Schools are no longer competing for students by showing off their various programs and departments, but are instead improving their entertainment and social offerings: the dances, the sports, the on-campus cafes, and so on.
Essentially, students aren’t choosing their college because of the education that might come out of it; they’re choosing it because it offers them a spot on a team playing their favorite sport, or perhaps because it’s in a lively and entertaining city or area. Quality of education is still a factor in decisions, but it’s typically only one of many. The “college experience” consists not only of education for most young students, but also requires an entertaining campus, a high number of school-sponsored events and games, and a whole host of other needs that should be decidedly secondary to quality of education.
But more worrying is the seeming trajectory of the universities themselves. My school, as well as many others (especially private universities), are getting along quite well, despite this unfortunate economy. Students continue to pour in, as does money. But where is this money going? It doesn’t seem to be furthering the student body’s education nearly as much as it should! Universities’ cash reserves now seem to be less dedicated to the expansion of their educational capacities, and have instead become focused on improving extracurricular offerings, such as sports, gym equipment, and so on. Visit a college campus, and chances are that your tour guide will emphasize the fun things to do in town or around campus, rather than the school’s strong academics.
All of this makes one wonder: How valuable is a modern college education? Are the things learned here likely to lead to a more fruitful life, or will they only give a slightly bumped-up salary? These will be crucial questions in the coming years, including in my own life and university experience. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now, I leave you with a question: Is a university education worth the time and money anymore?
This post was heavily modified on April 25, 2011, after its original publication on April 14, 2011.