Monday, March 2, 2015

The Value of College

As I write this, it is snowing again in Rhode Island, to absolutely no one’s surprise, and to Rhody’s continuing delight.  In short, a good time to read and write, something University of Rhode Island students do a lot.  Two articles appeared within a few days of each other in February that caught my attention: “The Rich Man’s Dropout Club”, by Beth McMurtrie in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and “Bachelor’s degrees lead to employment and more training”, by Paul Fain, in Inside Higher Education.  Both articles are worth reading, if you have not already read them. And both contribute to the ongoing conversation about the value of higher education in America today.
The article by Fain begins with the assertion: “Doubts about the labor-market returns of bachelor’s degrees, while never serious, can be put to rest.”  That is probably comforting to the students who have recently received, or are working towards, a bachelor’s degree, as well as to their families.  The data and analyses described in the article are consistent with numerous previous studies and the experiences shared with me by innumerable graduates of the institutions I have served – Amherst College, Montana State University, and the University of Rhode Island.  Personally, it is certainly true that I graduated from UCSD with far more knowledge, with new and essential skills, and with greater wisdom than when I entered.  It would have been simply impossible for me to succeed without what I learned and experienced in those four years.
However, I certainly agree with the statement that: “college is not for everyone”.  That is self-evident.  The article by McMurtrie chronicles the experiences of several members of the inaugural class of Thiel Fellows.  You may recall that these fellowships were established by billionaire Peter Thiel to provide $100,000 to talented young people so they could forgo higher education and pursue their ambitions immediately.  It generated a lot of attention at the time.  One interpretation of the results (based on the CHE article): generously funded fellowships with the freedom to pursue your own ideas are not for everyone either (even those chosen in a highly selective process).
Here is what resonated with me from the accounts in the McMurtrie story: “The most valuable part of the fellowship for many wasn’t the freedom or the money but the network they were plugged into. Although less structured in its early days, the fellowship now offers retreats, internships, summer housing, and teams of advisors who work in and around the industries to which the fellows aspire.”  Hmmm, at the University of Rhode Island, and many, many other institutions of higher education, we would call that experiential learning.  And it has been around for a while.
We know that experiential learning, whether via internships or in laboratories, or the field, or in many other contexts, is a powerful educational strategy.  Research, creative work, and experiential learning provide unique opportunities for learning that cannot be replicated in standard classrooms. That is why these activities are a key part of our Academic Strategic Plan, and why we created the Center for Career and Experiential Education and the Business Engagement Center. This is one reason why we brought the Small Business Development Center and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership under the URI umbrella. It is why we are connecting our private-sector partners and alumni with our students. One of the most impressive and exciting outcomes of URI’s new January term is the additional opportunity it provides for rich and rewarding experiential learning (more on this in the next post).

The final point I would like to make after reflecting on these articles is this. It is true that college is not for everyone. Very few things are good for everyone. But the opportunity to go to college should be provided to everyone.  The challenges of the 21st century are difficult, vast, and complicated. The more we know, the more we can learn, the better equipped we collectively will be to meet them.