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‘We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us’
March 8, 2013 - 10:01am
When people ask me what keeps me awake at night, they probably expect me to respond with issues related to college affordability or access. And those problems do prey on my mind every day. However, what really keeps me awake (quite literally) is the feeling that Americans no longer realize the value of education in general and higher education more specifically.
Our government now urges us to measure the value of our education by our new graduates’ starting salaries. Parents discuss the cost of competing colleges rather than examining their relative strengths and suitability for their children. “This is my son’s first choice, and I really want him to enroll at W&J,” one parent recently told me.  “But of course you need to give us a good deal.” This person’s annual income exceeded $400,000, and he has one child. This kind of conversation drives me to despair.
While re-reading Frederick Rudolph’s The American College & University: A History, I came across this description of the situation for colleges and universities in the early 1800s: “Until the American people were  . . . adequately assured that their customs and institutions supported a high level of [social] mobility, they would continue to view the colleges with suspicion and contempt.” And then it made sense to me. The current devaluation of education is not just one more expression of the anti-intellectualism that has been present in the American character since Colonial times. Rather, it is a by-product of the economic stalemate in which we are currently mired.
When economic times are good and social mobility fluid, education is recognized as driving personal and social transformation in a positive way. But when economic times are tight, education becomes a ready scapegoat. This was true in the economic doldrums of 1976 when Newsweek’s cover asked “Who Needs College?” and was true a few months ago when one of Newsweek’s last print editions answered its cover question, “Is College a Lousy Investment?”  with a resounding “yes.”
The response by today’s colleges and universities is also eerily reminiscent of the Jacksonian era, when Brown's president Wayland bemoaned, “We cannot induce men to pursue a collegiate course unless we offer it vastly below its cost, if we do not give it away altogether.” As the public has devalued our product, we have tacitly accepted that assessment and acted accordingly. So, we offer deep discounts, making the admissions process resemble buying a used car. As colleges bargain with students, bidding against one another to secure enrollments, we raise the implicit value of the student (even those with questionable high school records) and lower the value of the educational product we are selling.
We devalue the formal, degree-based education we offer when we give credit for prior life experience, obscuring the difference between skills that are acquired through practice and education that requires reflective conversation, critical exploration of complex problems, and pursuit of sophisticated knowledge. The educational ecosystem in America is diverse—this is one of our strengths. We have community colleges, liberal arts colleges, R-1 universities, vocational schools, corporate training programs, personal trainers, hospital training, MOOCs and many, many more means of educating ourselves. All of these learning experiences are valuable. But embracing the diversity of valuable learning opportunities does not mean erasing the distinctions among them.  
Finally, we devalue the authority of our faculty when we grant college credit for completion of massive online courses in which students have no contact with the talking professorial heads appearing in video lectures and where both discussions and short written assignments receive feedback only from fellow students and not from anyone with deep knowledge of the subject. Just as opinion has gained the status of fact and news has become entertainment, we in higher education have allowed the nature of authority and expertise to be eviscerated.  
We must stop under-selling ourselves. Let us stop the madness of offering deeper and deeper discounts as we bid against one another for students. Need-based aid is legitimate. Aid in excess of need undermines our enterprise. Let us embrace the growing diversity of educational sources, but let us also insist that they are not interchangeable. If we do not value what we do, who else will?
Tori Haring-Smith, President
Washington & Jefferson College
Washington, PA


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