Employment and Education: What's Not Working

In my first year composition classes, we organize our semester around a theme to help practice the skills needed to write organized and developed arguments. In recent years, our theme has been higher education in the U.S.

No one can deny that our higher education system is in a real state right now. On the one hand, we have everyone from parents to career counselors to President Obama telling Americans that everyone needs a college degree. On the other, we have the cold hard fact that the cost of higher education makes enrolling impossible for many Americans, as well as the stats that show the depressing number of un- or under-employed college graduates.

Some argue (in my class and elsewhere) that the government should do something to curb the cost; others say education needs no more government intervention than health care does. Some say universities and colleges should lower costs, while others argue about what's already been lost due to budget cuts. Professors are to blame for resting on their laurels; students are to blame for feeling entitled and being lazy.

In one semester of class, my students can't find a solution to fix the problems. In twenty years of teaching, I haven't either.

But much of the debate leaves out what I believe is the true purpose of higher education: to gain knowledge and to learn skills. I'm not saying, of course, that we should ignore the need for financial security. Not many of us have that luxury. But implying that the reason students should go to college is because a degree will guarantee them prosperous lives is misleading and damaging to the learning process.

A piece of paper does not get someone hired. Employers want applicants who have the technical ability to do the job, who can communicate and work with others, who can think critically and solve problems and who are committed to their work. That piece of paper supposedly symbolizes possession of those skills, but I'm not sure that's the reality. We need to stop telling students they've got to have a degree and instead tell them they've got to learn.

All stakeholders need to participate in this attitudinal change. Certainly education is an economic issue, but government support of education can't just be tied to enrollment and retention figures. Funding to colleges and universities and financial aid to students should take into consideration teaching and learning, which aren't always best measured in test scores and mortar boards.

Students need to change their approach as well. I don't envy any person coming of age during these economic conditions. But stubbornly refusing to engage in the learning process and instead "putting in the hours until I can get my paper," as I've had students tell me they're doing, is only wasting time and money. Not every class a student takes will be fascinating, not every lesson immediately useful. But the skills that can be learned in college are endless: whether it's how to be an historian or a nurse; how to argue or analyze; or how to work with others or deal with a boss who's tedious and unfair. Students must engage with the learning process, rather than resent it.

And professors need to put down their defenses and keep their teaching as fresh and effective as they can. Teaching with the presumption that the students don't care will only ensure that no one does.

We all want students to graduate and get great jobs and lead happy lives. But pretending that a piece of paper is all that's needed to do this is something we can no longer do. Higher education institutions are places of learning; none of us can afford to forget this.