It’s become disturbingly chic to rip on colleges for their shortcomings. ‘College is a waste of time.’ ‘College is a waste of money.’ ‘College is a waste of time and money. But for every criticism of college there is a commendation, for every low a high. If you laid out some of the things colleges and universities really knock out of the park (besides the obvious of educating students), we’d all see colleges in a different light.
For starters, college makes people healthier. For every age group, bachelor’s degree holders enjoy the lowest rates of obesity and the highest rates of exercise. Schools not only educate students on healthy lifestyles, but they reinforce that knowledge with campus-wide fitness campaigns and weight loss competitions, like the “Biggest Loser” challenges at Saint Xavier University and Georgetown University.
College-educated people also smoke at much lower rates than others, and the percentage who smoke has fallen much faster over the last 50 years. Even healthy birth weights are more common among college-educated women than high-school-educated moms. In short, college helps people live longer (as many as nine years), healthier, happier lives.
The best counterargument to the high price of college is summed up best in a quote from former Harvard University president Derek Bok: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” College may cost a lot, but the way that it increases future earnings classifies it as what some call “good debt.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011 bachelor’s degree holders earned a median yearly income of $54,756, while those with only a high school diploma earned just $33,176. According to the Pew Research Center, in a lifetime a college graduate will earn $1.42 million, compared to high school grads’ $770,000. Colleges also provide the stepping stone to more lucrative careers that can be had with master’s and doctorate degrees, which brought in a median income of $65,676 and $80,652, respectively.
Where would the world be without the innovations developed on college campuses and by people who honed their skills at university? We’d still be here, but we wouldn’t have GPS, plasma screens, wetsuits, Geiger counters, Geckskin, Google, or even the Internet, for that matter, and a host of other inventions. And if we as a society have any hope for hoverboards, flying cars, time cloaks, and robot dance partners, college and university research departments are our best shot.
When it comes to fundraising for worthy causes, no other segment of American society can hold a candle to academia. Colleges and universities raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year that goes to medical research, shelters, food pantries, and more by capitalizing on their students’ enthusiasm, energy, and passion for making a difference in the world. It’s a wonder cancer even exists anymore, with college students continuously throwing themselves into fun-runs for the American Cancer Society, spinning for cancer research, and shooting hoops to raise breast cancer awareness.
College dance marathons have become an especially popular way to encourage community members to give. These events typically require students and other volunteers to get their grooves on for at least 10 straight hours, and some for 24, 30, or more. Penn State’s THON is the biggest, having raised $89 million to combat pediatric cancer in the 36 years since it was created. But Indiana University, Northwestern University, the University of Kentucky, the University of Iowa, and other schools also host their own successful dance-offs each year.
This strength might also be called “making students well-rounded,” and it deserves recognition in light of the rash of negative feeling toward the liberal arts degree in recent years.The argument to end liberal arts education is flawed. Liberal arts areas of study make students well-rounded enough to excel in a wide range of fields. For example, students in both the humanities and the social sciences saw higher rates of acceptance to medical schools than biological sciences majors, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. For law school acceptance, philosophy, anthropology, history, and English make up four of the top 10 majors with the highest rates, according to a study out of Chicago State University.
Cast your eye around a typical college student’s dorm room and at the sight of 18 empty pizza boxes, you might draw the conclusion that that student is a complete slob. You might be right, but it’s just as likely that the student is planning to recycle them all. Colleges have become an epicenter for sustainability thought and practice, and a big part of that is recycling programs.
At Pepperdine University, for example, 78% of the refuse generated on campus is diverted away from landfills. College of the Atlantic’s thorough recycling program oversees the composting of all uneaten food and soiled, compostable tableware on campus and touches “every floor of every building” so that students and staff can properly dispose of printer cartridges, glass, tin, and aluminum products, and more. Some schools, like Chatham University, won’t even sell plastic bottles anymore, instead encouraging students to employ the reusable bottles they’re given at the start of the year.
Using the classic ‘make-a-game-out-of-it’ approach, colleges have given the world RecycleMania. What started in 2001 as a friendly contest between Ohio University and Miami University to see which school could recycle the most has become a national tournament with 630 institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada competing by 2011. That year, 7.5 million college students and employees helped prevent the release of 127,553 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air with their recycling of paper, cardboard, bottles, and food waste. In 2012 this number rose to 148,897 metric tons.
Furthering the cause of the green movement goes hand-in-hand with recycling, and colleges excel here as well. Energy efficient dorms and buildings have been popping up on campuses, like the Clarke and Hood residence halls at Ithaca College, with their zoned heating, energy-efficient boilers, and “eco-reps” who encourage their fellow students to go green in their daily lives. Campuses like those of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Swarthmore College, and Sarah Lawrence College offer just a few of many collegial opportunities to see green roofs in action.
Adapting to online learning
Although this is still evolving territory for traditional colleges and universities, most of them have acknowledged that online education is most likely the future and have adapted, or are currently adapting, to carry their education mandates into cyberspace.
Colleges have been instrumental in the growing movement of open education resources (OERs) and are moving into massive open online courses (MOOCs) at an increasingly fast clip. MIT’s Open Courseware is now 10 years in and makes over 2,000 of its courses freely available. It is also one of dozens of schools forming partnerships with MOOC providers like Coursera and Udacity to provide both college-aged and lifelong learners with institutional-grade educational material.
What they can do better
Much as we enjoy bragging on colleges, there’s always room for improvement, as the saying goes.
- Communication skills.
If you ask them, employers will tell you with one voice that colleges need to do more to improve students’ communication skills. In a 2012 survey of 225 employers, 91% responded that communications skills were both their most important and hardest to find college graduate ability. Of course, some of the blame could fairly be laid at the foot of high schools, with a fifth of high school seniors scoring “below basic” on a recent exam as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But as many students’ last chance to learn to communicate properly, the buck has to stop with colleges.
- Civic engagement.
Surprisingly, colleges may not do as good a job as was once thought at increasing students’ civic awareness and political engagement. A 2009 report by political science professor Benjamin Highton of University of California, Davis tracked the answers high school students gave to a survey gauging their political knowledge, and the answers they gave eight, 17, and 32 years later. The only differences in college graduates’ and nongraduates’ answers from their high school years were their understanding of Democrat and Republican party platforms, and even those differences did not remain permanently. A study the year before by researchers from UC Davis and Vanderbilt University had determined college was merely a “proxy for pre-adult experiences and influences, not a cause of political participation.”
- Cultural awareness.
College may not even be all that great at making people more tolerant and culturally aware, a longstanding belief held by many. A recent study out of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) found significantly more students became less interested in “personally helping to promote racial understanding” after four years of college than the other way around. The researchers’ advice for colleges was to “take steps that promote environments conducive for cross-race friendship and other forms of positive interaction.”
Despite these and other shortcomings, it would be difficult to imagine a world without colleges and universities. For hundreds of years, they’ve been the lifeblood of American exceptionalism and academic discovery. Replacing them would take a system that is truly revolutionary, and while edutech has given us many exciting developments to ponder of late, we see nothing currently on the horizon that could fill in for good old college.