College not for everyone

As Gov. Bobby Jindal continues to cut funding for higher education, tuition prices at our state’s public universities continue to rise.

The rising cost of college tuition across the country has led to an increased discussion in the media about the value of a college degree.

Take it from a college professor, if you’re paying college tuition right now, you’re probably getting fleeced.

Not too long ago, American universities were both affordable and provided the best education in the world. Now, instead of being the NFL or NBA of higher education, our universities more closely resemble the World Wrestling Federation.

Professional wrestling gives the appearance of being something that it’s not — an athletic contest. It’s not that the performers aren’t athletic (they are), or that they don’t suffer real injuries (they do), but rather the competition itself is scripted and the outcomes are predetermined.

Similarly, our schools give the appearance of providing something that they’re not — real education. It’s not that students don’t learn anything (they do), or that they don’t appear to work hard (they do), but rather they learn almost nothing of value.

Many students graduate high school lacking practical skills and an appreciation for knowledge. They are unprepared to enter college or the workforce, or even think critically about the world around them.

College graduates don’t fare much better. Research by Richard Arum (NYU) and Josipa Roksa (UVA) has shown that most college students make no significant gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning, or in written communication skills, improving by less than half a standard deviation.

Forty-five percent of students make no significant gains in these areas during their first two years, and 36 percent make no gains during their entire college career.

We shouldn’t be surprised by these results. Colleges no longer sell an education. They sell an experience. And for many students, college is simply a combination of an expensive adult summer camp and mediocre vocational training.

As a result, many students see formal education as a game. But what they don’t see is that this game has been designed to extract money from them while leading them to believe that what they’re doing is necessary for future success. By playing this game our students become economic losers.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, U.S. education debt now exceeds $1 trillion. The average undergraduate graduates with $26,600 of education debt. Louisiana students don’t fare much better than this average.

Loyola students graduate with $12,597 of education debt, UNO students with $18,106, LSU students with $20,337, Xavier students with $26,106, Tulane students with $31,172, and Dillard students with $36,241.

Unlike almost all other types of debt, education debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. This fact, combined with students graduating with little knowledge, few useful skills, and a job market oversaturated with job-seekers like themselves, makes it almost impossible for many graduates to escape this debt.

We’re turning an entire generation into modern-day serfs.

The solution is simple: We must stop perpetuating the myth that success requires a college degree. Advanced work in the arts, sciences or humanities is not appropriate for the majority of our students, never mind all of them. For students not interested in, or lacking the intellectual aptitude for, the standard curriculum, other paths like vocational training must be available and encouraged.

Students have different abilities and different interests. Pressuring everyone to take the same educational path is both foolish and detrimental to the well-being of our nation.

Chris W. Surprenant is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Orleans, where he serves as the director of the Alexis de Tocqueville Project on Democratic Ideals and Institutions. His email address is csurpren@uno.edu.