There has been a lot attention given to the value of a traditional four-year college education. For the past thirty years or so, it has been thought of having three primary purposes: preparing students for a career, providing a social experience, and imparting civic-mindedness. However, with the rising cost of tuition and associated student indebtedness, the first two of these purposes are coming into question.
There is a skills gap. Are there alternative ways to build relevant skills and knowledge – apprenticeships and online training? Are there less expensive ways to educate students – online courses, MOOCs, etc.? Are there better credentials than a college degree – online badges? The traditional education is not going away, however, colleges are going to find ways to address these issues – blend online and classroom learning, make internships more like apprenticeships, and shorten the path to a degree.
There is sufficient evidence that many students are not learning much in college, even if they earn a degree. The bigger question is the value of a social experience. There is a transition from living at home under parental care and living independently. College shapes an individual’s social connectedness and sense of responsibility, but how much is this worth?
In the book Paying for the Party, two sociologists define three pathways (motivations) for college students; they are: mobility pathway, party pathway, and professional pathway. I find the party pathway intriguing. Students prioritize Greek life and social aspects of their college experience. There is little emphasis on learning in this pathway. The idea is to get through the academics (to stay in college and party) and graduate with a credential – a degree. As the authors make clear, this is not necessarily negative for persons who strongly fit this motivation because they orchestrate the social interactions of the college. The majority of college students experience a maturation process where they learn to balance academics and partying; it is like a right of passage. (Though the intensity and circumstance of this process varies considerably based on social class.)
Nevertheless, as the cost of college is put under a microscope, I think it is important to consider students who gravitate towards a party pathway. Tuition is based on a credit hour system (related to the number of hours a week students spend on courses). Professors are paid based on the courses they teach. But if students are not attending the courses, what are they taking out loans and/or asking their parents to pay for?
Online learning helps some of these problems go away. Students can take a class or test when they are ready. There is no requirement to get up early in the morning or attend class on a Friday. Personalized learning and mastery is easier too. Students can get deeper into learning when they are ready.
Still I am not sure there is an easy solution in dealing with the escalating college costs. I think college students should understand their likely pathway and how it impacts their college experience. There has to be a better, less expensive way to go through a ‘maturation process’ to become academically prepared. Moreover, if you devote all of your time towards a ‘social experience’, then you should pay for a ‘social experience’ – not an academic education.
 Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. Paying for the Party. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 2013).