What is College For?


A few days ago, I received a group email sent to the surviving members of my undergraduate college class announcing—boasting—that the class gift from our sixtieth reunion had been the primary contribution for a golf training facility at Rutgers University. A photograph of the plaque honoring our support accompanied the message.

According to a press release celebrating the Class of 1957 Training Center:

The state-of-the-art, two-room facility features indoor putting space with Envyscapes turf and a hitting bay with Swing Catalyst technology, allowing student-athletes from both teams to train year-round. “This is a game changer for our student-athletes to be able to train right where they live,” said men’s head coach Rob Shutte . . . “On behalf of the entire men’s golf team, we can’t thank the supporters enough who made this facility a reality.”

The nature of that class gift and the pride with which it was offered fed into my ongoing ponderings about the purpose of college, a subject much debated at a time of Covid-19, when many campuses have turned to remote teaching, when many colleges worry about survival, when many current students resent and even sue over the high tuition for online learning, and when many graduates and dropouts complain about the lifetime burden of college debt and low-paying jobs.

During the many years I was an idealistic academic faculty member, I would have shaken my head at such a class gift, wondering what golf had to do with a college education. Now I’m not so sure. Was the real reason for sitting in classrooms, passing exams, and writing papers for four years the ability to devote future decades to lingering on the links? Not that my fellow students could even have imagined such a future in our youth.

I realize that my classmates and I—those of us lucky enough to still be alive in our mid-eighties—enjoyed a very different college experience from that of later and current generations. We coveted tweeds and foulards, turned out papers on manual typewriters, made calls from payphones, and rarely owned our own cars, not even expecting to. And at Rutgers College in the mid 1950s, we were all male. Women attended Douglas College a few miles across town, making a welcome presence at Saturday-night fraternity parties, even though they had to be back in their dorms for a midnight curfew.

We also represented a small percentage of high school graduates, among the less than ten percent who completed college at the time. (By 2019, the rate was thirty-five percent.) Many of us came from working class families with little spare income. Fortunately, tuition was low, and some—like me—had scholarships. For a number of my friends, that scholarship and summer and part-time jobs covered all our expenses. We graduated with no debt.

Not only that, but job opportunities were aplenty. It was a peak of the post-war economy with burgeoning management positions and a competition by businesses to fill them with college-educated people, primarily male. My classmates ended up with very successful careers, the majority who did not become doctors or lawyers retiring after years in upper management of large corporations. The sons of blue-collar fathers gravitated into the upper middle class. They lived—and continue to live—the good life, many with second homes that became the sites of their retirement, in a number of cases just a few steps from a golf course.

Those hours on pristine green lawns, focused on sending a small ball into a tiny hole, then back to the club house for a few drinks, and occasionally a few hours later for an evening meal, explain to me the class eagerness to support the golf training center. My classmates were happy to spread the beneficence of their success and the hope that today’s young students will share similar good lives in the future.

And that’s been the dream of students in the decades since we were undergraduates—a version of the American dream. The degree a passport to a good job, a large house, a luxury car, travel, and top-of-the-line golf clubs. While our high school classmates who didn’t attend college earned less, lived in smaller homes, drove ordinary cars, traveled more locally, and bowled instead of golfed, they still owned those homes and cars, paid their bills, and prepared their children for the aspirations of college.

Then the economy changed. Well-paid manufacturing jobs began to vanish. Workers became commodities in the drive to maximize corporate profits, victims of management decisions that may have been made on a golf course. Rather than an option, college became a necessity. Without a degree, you could kiss your future good-bye. The statistics are well known—the increasing gap in lifetime earning of those with and without college, the lower rates of marriage and higher of divorce, the greater chance of unemployment, the debt, depression, and drug overdoses.

For millions of young people that’s what the purpose of college had become, winning in a zero-sum game, all or nothing. But even that no longer holds with unaffordable tuition, accumulated debt, lower salaries, with jobs that were once held by high school graduates—that displaced group dropping even further down on the social and economic scale.

More and more today it’s being asked if college is worth it, if instead our society could provide more efficient and effective alternatives to gain skills for well-paid jobs and even long-term careers.

I consider the dilemma from a perspective quite different from that of economists and politicians. My classmates’ golf gift led me to think about my life in comparison with theirs, even though we shared a very similar undergraduate experience sitting in the same classrooms. Many of them got better grades—probably because they were smarter. The degree of my difference took several years to occur to me.

In addition to being a non-golfer, I’ve ended up living a life much unlike that of my classmates, though I started out like them immediately after graduation when I accepted an offer to become an advertising and sales trainee at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. That’s where I had my one and only adventure on a golf course, the Edison Club for management employees. With borrowed clubs, I churned divots in the green and whacked balls into the rough.

But it wasn’t this humiliation that made me decide within a few months I didn’t want a career as a corporate executive. I surprised myself by deciding to do something that had never occurred to me as an undergraduate student. I would apply to graduate schools, unsure of whether any would want me. It turned out to be my good luck to get into one that allowed me to immerse in Modernism while writing fiction, ending up with the degree for a career as an English professor.

My income ended up being far less than that of my successful classmates, but I can’t complain. Money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Still, I acknowledge that in comparison to them I’m an oddball, having developed a very different assumption of what college is all about.

Taking an image from Tristram Shandy, I was one of a small group of those riding our hobby horse of obsession with books and ideas, cramming new volumes onto overloaded shelves, quoting lines and passages, parsing insights. My faculty colleagues and I labored under the delusion that the world shared our egghead perspectives, that our true mission was to lead our students into sharing our obsessions.

Some of those students may have considered us with a benign amusement, like watching kitten videos. A few may have been momentarily awed during office visits, as in, “Did you read all those books?” At fraternity parties, in my day, we sang ribald songs about our professors, affectionately mocking their mannerisms. But we did our assignments without complaint. Now, in this era of grade inflation, a good number of students seethe at faculty they consider unfair in their assignments and grading policies.

Several years ago, I had an illumination when watching episodes of a Showtime documentary series that followed a group of freshmen at the University of Texas—Austin, supposedly the most selective of that state’s public institutions.  It may be the results of those who edited hours of footage, but this group of eighteen-year-olds talked of nothing but parties and whether he or she really liked me, moaning over unrequited crushes and dateless Saturday nights. Not once did one say something like, “I really had this great lecture on Jung’s collective unconscious.”

But it wasn’t like that when I was an undergraduate. In addition to the drive of hormones, my contemporaries in their pre-golfing days could discuss a book or debate an idea. I recall sharing notes with a friend taking a political theory course where we read whole books by Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and a few others. Overall, most of us were aware of what we should know, authors we should have read, ideas we should know about, a bit guilty that we didn’t.

Yet as much as I was eager to learn, I was easily distracted, more drawn by hanging out with friends, extracurricular activities, falling in love, falling out of love, going to movies, decorating fraternity floats, reporting for the campus paper, listening to music, playing cards, watching occasional TV.

But maybe that wasn’t so terrible.  Perhaps the real purpose of college for us, whether we knew it or not, was to enable us to grow up and become adults. More than information gained, fulfilling course requirements taught us focus and discipline. Interacting with a variety of people brought us lifelong friendships and appreciation of others, the ability to get along. These are the attributes that helped my classmates succeed in their professions and earn the luxury of golf.

Defenders of an education in the liberal arts have long emphasized the path to greater critical thinking and problem-solving. That too has been important for their high earning. And I’ve also noted a generalization I can make about most who have gone to college, even those who sailed through with minimal effort. They possess a fuller sense of systems, how things connect, than many who did not attend. They are better able to cope with the world around them.

The experience of living on campus or in housing near campus, having to manage your young life without relying on parents, served as a crucial step to self-reliant maturity. College was a rite of passage.

It still is for some, or will be again when Covid-19 is behind us. But those some are no longer young people like me, emerging from a blue-collar world. College—the campus experience—costs far too much for offspring of the shrinking middle class, just about impossible for those of the working class. College perpetuates and exacerbates the growing income and social gap so destructive to American society. It’s doubtful that I and a large number of my golfing classmates would be able to attend today, certainly not living on campus with minimal part-time jobs, filling their days and nights with socializing and occasional study, preparing for a future of fulfilling careers and the good life. Or ending up as an oddball egghead with book-crammed shelves.

The educational experience of the future is likely to be very different from mine and even from that of recent years. College is likely to play a shrinking role with the emphasis on developing specific occupational skills for the workforce. That has been the tendency of many existing universities, closing down majors in philosophy and history, minimizing literature to focus on basic writing. Who can afford to devote hours to discussing books and ideas when the accumulation of practical abilities is what matters to prepare for the world of work, when employers demand those abilities?

Writing in Inc, Parul Gupta, co-founder of Springboard, a provider of online courses, predicts that “Tangible skills will replace credentials, and learning will be lifelong.” She predicts a continuation of remote education taught by mentors who are professionals and hiring managers in touch with the demands of the workforce. Instruction will be personalized, and students will learn at their own pace with individualized feedback. “The next-generation of higher education,” she proposes, “will be designed to teach the needed ‘on the job’ skills, as well as provide opportunities for real-world experience.”

Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass, an anti-market conservative group, writing in The New York Times, argues that much of the $150 billion spent on public subsidies to college students every year is wasted because only a fraction of young people even complete college, many of those needing additional “trade school” to qualify for a job. He calls for half of the $150 billion to be transferred from higher education to “programs that foster employer-trainee relationships.”

Even though Gupta and Cass represent particular social and political perspectives, they share some basic assumption with many university administrators seeking long-term survival of their institutions. A future competition may break out between those hoping to preserve their campus environments and those businesses happy to provide skills instruction to remote students from far-flung keyboards.

What I enjoyed during my four undergraduate years is likely to become a luxury.  Except for the occasional athletes who bring in sports revenue, the residential college experience will be limited to the already privileged, progeny of parents at home on the soft turf of golf courses, sons and daughters perfecting their inherited swings and putts in a state-of-the-art training facility.

I wonder when our society achieves a point where the affluent are all under par and the rest are relegated to mastering skills for gainful employment, if we won’t have lost something indefinably vital.  Those completing what may still be called higher education will no longer receive even minimal exposure to the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Adam Smith, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Toni Morrison, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Kierkegaard, Keats, Keynes, and Shakespeare.

That lament may be my sentimental throwback to Matthew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said.” Much more troubling for the larger society is the threat of an exacerbated class gap, an educated few manipulating a majority of worker bees, men and women shaped to fill slots determined by those who decide which skills should be the primary subjects of a corporate or university training system. It would be a different sort of throwback, in this case to a version of the assembly line, one without time clocks but workers still relegated to roles as functionaries.


Photo at the top of the page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutgers_University#/media/File:Clock_on_the_campus_of_Rutgers_University_(2012).jpg