A Letter to My Elders
As he drifts further away from the age of his students, Andrew Gillen considers how much the higher education landscape has changed for today's undergraduates.
Today, I add another notch to my belt. The signs of aging are clearly beginning to show - in the past year or so, I’ve managed to hurt my shoulder throwing a tennis ball for the dog, pull something in my leg vacuuming, and injure my neck while sleeping. And to top it off, my body seems to insist on accumulating what appears to be spare material around my waist.
But my rapidly deteriorating body is not the only thing I’ve noticed. With each passing year, I lose a bit more perspective on what it was like on the other side of the student-faculty divide. So before it is lost forever, I thought I’d share some of the more illuminating differences in perspective between many students from younger generations and many from older ones. I certainly don’t claim to be able to speak for entire generations, but I do have reason to believe that these views are fairly widespread.
Many older folks within academia are fond of telling stories about how they worked over the summers at low-paid jobs to fund their education. This is sometimes accompanied by lamenting the laziness of today’s students. Most of the younger generation find these stories interesting but irrelevant to our lives, much like stories of using slide rules to do math. What many in the older generations seem to be unaware of is that except for those students attending the very lowest-cost institutions, their experience is no longer applicable. Working at the minimum wage, a typical student at a four-year college could pay their total cost of attendance in 1976-1977 by working 23 hours a week, 50 weeks a year.
Thus, it was feasible to finance your education with a summer job and a little part-time work. By 2009-2010,however, a student would have had to work 58 hours a week. As a result, instead of attending college and working on the side, students are increasingly working full time and attending college part time.
(2) For many students, college is all about the job.
Any time someone makes the point that a certain college or even a college degree may not make sense monetarily, they are immediately hounded by a slew of individuals retorting that there is a lot more to a college education than getting a good-paying job. This is obviously true. I myself gained a much greater appreciation for literature thanks to some schedule-filling class where we read the Odyssey, something I probably never would have read otherwise. But this point is usually overblown. Back when tuition was a couple hundred dollars a semester, it didn’t much matter if it helped you get a better job. Now a degree comes with an average of $25,250 in student loan debt (for those that borrow), not counting what parents borrow. Students don’t take on that kind of financial burden to become a better human being – we do it to get a better job.
Moreover, college is not the only place where these non-vocational skills and attitudes can be acquired. Now that school is no longer getting in the way of my education, I’ve rekindled numerous interests and still learn new things (the first poem that I ever enjoyed I read for work).
(3) We’ve realized that higher education has higher priorities than the education of students.
As new college students, we completely bought into those orientation speeches about how dedicated faculty are going to mold us into tomorrow’s leaders. Within a year or two though, we’d had classes taught by TAs and adjuncts who are too busy to prepare for class or give us timely feedback, or tenured professors who are too lazy to update their lesson plans from before we were born (some of these are written on yellow paper -- not yellow legal pads, mind you, but paper that has yellowed from age). But the worst are the classes where the professor/adjunct/TA doesn’t even speak English. The first couple of times you encounter these issues, you assume that it is just some sort of fluke, soon to be fixed. But by the time you graduate, you have encountered these too often and have come to one of two conclusions: colleges are either nearly incompetent in making staffing decisions, or teaching is simply not a high priority for colleges.
(4) We are goal-oriented, meaning we’ll follow the path of least resistance.
From what I’ve been able to gather, many in the older generations went to college to explore (at least that’s what they tell us). Many in the younger generations go to college to achieve a goal. We are told that a college degree is virtually required for a middle-class life, so we go out and get a college degree. But since the goal is a degree rather than a journey, we follow the path of least resistance. We do this not because we are lazy (well, that too) but rather because it is what we’ve been trained to do. We’ll take easy courses and seek out easy professors to ensure that our grades are high enough to reach the next level. This is problematic because we assume that the paths have been designed properly and therefore that we will be ready for life when we graduate. Too often, that is not the case (see point 3).
(5) College is not always worth it.
Most younger people know numerous people for whom college was not worth it. This colors our perception of the entire enterprise (and the advice we give to others). This is the difference that I think the older generations have the hardest time coming to terms with. When they went to school, as long as you didn’t drink yourself to death, it was almost guaranteed to have no long-term negative impact. That is no longer the case.
All the debt students acquire still needs to be paid back even if they drop or fail out. Even more disturbing, most of us know quite a few people who managed to graduate, but then couldn’t find a job, even before the recession. They generally find something eventually, but typically after a few years of aimlessness, and the job they finally get often does not require them to use their degree in any meaningful sense. These are smart, capable people. They would have achieved the same level of success regardless of whether they went to college or not, but all felt compelled to go, at great expense to themselves and taxpayers.
If you are older and disagreed with any of these five points, worry not. If my rapidly deteriorating body is any guide, I’ll be coming around to your views soon enough.
Andrew Gillen is an adjunct professor of economics in Washington, and research director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.
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