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What Are College Students Paying For?

After paring back the useless majors, ideologies, and gimmicks, the true purpose of college becomes clear.

· 15 min read
What Are College Students Paying For?
Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

My graduating class of 1995 was one of the last to start college without the Internet. The first browser, Netscape Mosaic, came along in 1993, but there wasn’t yet much to browse. Writing papers required finding physical copies of books and journals in the library, as had been done for hundreds of years. Colleges held a monopoly on access to most academic publications, which helped them justify skyrocketing tuition. Professors were among the few who spent much of their adult lives in close proximity—both physically and intellectually—to these rare volumes. They were thought to be uniquely capable of navigating “the literature.” So colleges held a monopoly on access to both the books and the expert guides who knew the books, which further justified jacking up tuition.

Of course, much of this paradigm has been upended by the internet. Today, many of the core works in any field can be found online for free. And many college lectures are available online to anyone. Students can often get much better guidance on navigating the books from the myriad free online sources than from the one person who happens to be their professor. Thus, the monopolies that colleges once had on publications and expertise have largely crumbled.

And this begs the question of what remains in the aftermath. If the books and their guides are now at anyone’s fingertips online, what are students paying for when they go to college? There have been many answers to this question: classroom experience, campus experience, credentialing, technology, community, and diversity.

To be sure, nothing can replace a truly great classroom, where a teacher gets to know students and stirs up discussion and dialogue. As a secondary and college instructor, I’m the first to recognize that professors are often not simply better or worse compared to each other or online resources. They are also different, each offering their own unique insights. And there is no substitute for a knowledgeable professor who challenges and listens to students and personalizes feedback to their questions. As John Henry Newman put it in The Idea of the University, “An academical system without the personal influence of teacher upon pupils, is an Arctic winter; It will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron university, and nothing else.”

Today, a personalized classroom experience is perhaps more common at traditional liberal arts colleges outside the “Top 25” or “R1” schools. Professors at big-name schools are often immersed in the publish-or-perish world and are supported by teaching assistants. But it should be noted that having a great dialogue in class is not necessarily a question of numbers. By far the best professor I had in college, political theorist Joshua Mitchell managed to have excellent discussions in a class with up to 99 students. The class was “Elements of Political Theory,” and the classroom was the size of a gym. One need only watch the video of Harvard’s Justice course with Michael Sandel for more evidence that great discussions are possible in large classes.

But deep discussions and dialogue in college classes can be rare. So what else are college students paying for? Some colleges have tried to make the campus experience itself the attraction. For example, in College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education, Ryan Craig illustrates how, in addition to climbing walls and gourmet dining facilities, many campuses have developed water parks: “The New York Times [in 2014] reported [that] Auburn has developed a $52 million water park, including a 45-student paw-print-shaped hot tub and a 20-foot wet climbing wall … Auburn raised its student activity fee from $7.50 to $200 to fund its water park.” The University of Missouri “has a lazy river, waterfall, indoor beach club, and a grotto modeled after the one at the Playboy Mansion. Not to be outdone, Missouri State has put in a waterpark complete with zipline and lazy river, but insists on calling the lazy river a ‘current river’ because ‘Missouri State students are not lazy.’” So, the answer to “What else are students paying for?” includes college campuses as vacation destinations.

To be sure, college students also pay for a school’s name recognition. And they pay to be around the sort of highly qualified peers who are drawn to that name recognition. But the circular reasoning that “good students go here because good students go here” is now being undermined by what I call the Stephen Curry Effect. Curry is perhaps the greatest pure shooter in NBA history, yet he was overlooked by top college basketball programs and ended up at Davidson University, a relatively unknown program at the time. Similarly, as admissions offices at elite colleges increasingly deprioritize academic qualifications in favor of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” many of the most academically gifted students are landing at colleges outside the “Top 25,” and even the “Top 50,” like academic versions of Stephen Curry. Thus, just as the Internet broke up colleges’ monopolies on access to rare books and rare academic expertise, the deprioritization of academic qualifications in admissions is inadvertently breaking up the monopolies that highly ranked colleges used to have on students with the top test scores and grades. The Stephen Curry Effect is making it increasingly obvious that one does not need to go to a “top college” to have top students as peers. At prestigious colleges, this further begs the question: “What are students paying for?”

COVID stripped away many of the trappings of the modern university. Gone were dorm life, the picture-perfect postcard campus, the stately library, and the rec center. Students continued to pay astronomical tuition just to sit at home, listen to a professor over Zoom, and upload assignments. “What are we paying for?” they asked.

COVID learning was an experiment. And the modern college experience itself is an experiment, still very much in progress. Until the mid-1900s, the idea of going away to live at a four-year college was mostly for elite males. But an expansion of higher education started in the 1950s, and the Higher Education Act of 1965 led to an explosion of student loans, which allowed millions more Americans to go to college. Now women graduate in far higher numbers than men—a remarkable gender turnaround.

In the 1960s and 1970s, proliferating colleges, with their swelling enrollments, needed more teachers. And it so happened that this era of college expansion coincided with the civil rights era, an era of protest. Many radical leftists, socialists, progressives, and Marxists saw an opportunity to use teaching to preach and promote their causes. Thus it was that during this time, the idea of using—or, rather, abusing—education as a platform to promote ideologies and activism began to spread. The fruits of this phenomenon still poison classrooms today.

On the replacement of education with indoctrination in identity politics ideology, Brown University economics professor Glenn Loury says that “[t]o jump on a bandwagon, and to fill [students’] heads with slogans, rather than challenging them with the best that human beings of any color have thought through the ages … is a criminal abdication of our pedagogic responsibilities.” Students who come for knowledge and instead get ideologies are asking, “What are we paying for?”

As ideologies have hijacked many humanities departments, comedian Adam Carolla has echoed many students’ disenchantment. He likened the humanities to the parsley on a dinner plate. Like parsley, he said, the humanities are just there for tradition, just for show. And just as restaurants eventually realized the parsley is unnecessary and ditched it, he imagined that schools would eventually realize that the humanities are unnecessary and get rid of them.

But lost on Carolla is the fact that, in many ways, his own career highlights the value of the humanities. He and his co-host, internist and addiction medicine specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky, became household names in the 1990s and 2000s for their radio call-in show, “Loveline.” The show’s popularity was rooted not only in humor but also in the hosts’ keen insights into human nature, as listeners called in with all sorts of problems—often very serious problems like divorce, abusive relationships, addictions, and homelessness. Humanities is, in fact, education in how to be a human being, and much of what Loveline offered was just that.

By contrast, many humanities departments today indoctrinate students in identity politics, which points fingers at races and genders that are said to “oppress” and focuses on calling out, canceling, and tearing down. As Joshua Mitchell points out in American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, identity politics is a modern form of the ancient practice of scapegoating. It separates humanity into the pure and the stained based on race and gender and promises that, somehow, purging the stained can make things right. Many college students come ready to dig down to the depths of the human soul to see what’s there, but instead, they’re told that what matters is on the surface: race and gender. "Is this what we're paying for?" they're asking.

Notre Dame political philosopher Patrick Deneen argues that a true education in the liberal arts is first and foremost not about pointing fingers but learning how to overcome one’s own weaknesses, malice, and addictions, which is hard work. The humanities provide countless models of thought, feeling, and behavior to compare and contrast and use as points of reference. Said Newman, “If then a practical end must be assigned to a university course, I say it is that of training good members of society.” If Newman was right, the humanities are less like parsley and more like the main course.

Some argue that colleges should give up the pretense of teaching altogether—end the charade, as it were. Just have tests, they say. This often comes from members of the IT crowd, who see higher education as a costly and inefficient way to gain technology credentials.

And indeed, much of college today has become simply credentialing, for careers or, as David Brooks put it, the sheer “lust for prestige,” the educational equivalent of a Polo logo on a shirt. The role of colleges as credentialing authorities invites the question: Why do the institutions giving out the credentials have a monopoly on exam prep? For example, if college is, at its essence, just credentialing, then why does anyone have to go to Harvard to take a Harvard test?

And this begs the question of what the purpose of college is, anyway. Is it to be like Plato’s Academy, a safe haven from the constraints of public opinion where students can engage in dialogue exploring Goodness, Truth, and Beauty? Or should college essentially be about social mobility, giving students marketable job skills? Indeed, when one sees some students balancing accounting equations and others wrestling with existential philosophical questions, it is logical to ask if these subjects belong on the same grounds or are better kept separate.

But historian and former Brown University President Vartan Gregorian thought there was room on college campuses for both the liberal arts and the technical and professional subjects. In his essay American Higher Education: An Obligation to the Future, he wrote:

[W]e seem to have divided higher education into a black-and-white scenario in which either an individual becomes a sort of pie-in-the-sky dreamer, well-read and able to quote great thinkers but probably starving in a garret while unable to get a decent job, or else he or she graduates from college and immediately plunges into the world of technologically complex, high-stakes, high-financial-reward work and becomes a ‘great success.’ Perhaps the time has come to reconsider that either-or proposition about higher education. The issue is too complex to be addressed in such a simplified manner.

Gregorian was one of America’s strongest proponents of widespread liberal arts education. An Armenian born in Persia, he immigrated to America at age 22 and ascended in society through higher education. He argued that we don’t want a society in which only a small elite is educated in the liberal arts, for several reasons. First, he believed the liberal arts fill an essential need for purpose that is common to everyone:

[T]he deep-seated yearning for knowledge and understanding endemic to human beings is an ideal that a liberal arts education is singularly suited to fulfill. Albert Einstein, in his inimitable fashion, went right to the heart of the matter, asserting that the practical men and women among us try to explain all phenomena by cause and effect. But, Einstein said, ‘This way of looking at things always answers only the question “Why?” but never the question, “To what end?” To search for even a glimpse of the answers to such great philosophical conundrums one needs to know not only what is taught in a classroom, but also how to think for oneself.

Indeed, the liberal arts at their best teach independent thinking that lasts a lifetime. In Gregorian's view, they also teach ways of connecting knowledge that are necessary for everyone in an age of fragmentation and information overload. In a prescient 1988 interview with Bill Moyers that should be required viewing for all educators, he said:

Unfortunately, the information explosion is not equivalent, or does not equal the explosion of knowledge. So we’re facing a major problem: how to structure information into knowledge. Because otherwise what is going to happen—there are great possibilities of manipulating our society by inundating us with undigested information. So instead of 1984, Orwell saying deny information, now one other way of paralyzing people is by inundating with trivia, as well as a major way of paralyzing our choices, by giving so much that we cannot possibly digest it.
The teaching profession, the universities, have to provide connections also, connections between subjects, connections between disciplines. In order to recreate that totality, knowledge. Because what is happening to us now as a nation, and throughout the world maybe, ideology used to provide that coherence, whatever ideology you adhere to. Conservatism, if there was such a body, to be called total conservatism. Liberalism, even though there are nine different categories of liberals and others. Socialists, even though there are many. Marxists, there are many variations of it. Anarchism, and so forth. Ideology provided a coherent world view. Nationalism used to provide that; tribalism did; philosophical views did; religion did.
But what is happening, as most of these things collapse around us, there’s a great burden on the educational establishment, to provide some kind of intellectual coherence, some kind of connection with our past, with our current present, with the future. And that’s why it’s tougher now, not only for the student, but also for the teacher. Especially when all of us have become specialists. That’s why I’m going to shock you by telling you, education’s sole function is now, possiblywhat we’re doing is providing an introduction to learning.

But if the answer to “What are college students paying for?” is job skills, the liberal arts do, in fact, make students better at writing and thinking about complex human issues, and these are perhaps the ultimate transferable skills. “[E]mployers want to hire men and women who have the ability to think and act based on deep, wide-ranging knowledge,” says Gregorian. “Students do not have to make artificial choices between what they want to know about the world and the skills they need to succeed in it.”

What if students simply do not want to go to college at the moment, or ever? The US conducts complex military operations around the globe, largely with soldiers without four-year degrees. But, beyond the military, there are not enough viable alternatives to college, although there are some. Taking a gap year or two to engage in a series of meaningful experiences that allow one to test-drive one’s natural talents—like internships, volunteering, work, and travel—can provide invaluable clues to possible courses of study and careers. And people with only a high school diploma could get paid over $100,000 a year to drive a truck for Walmart or $20 an hour to make BMWs instead of taking out $100,000 in loans to go to college.

In fact, the sort of paid training program that BMW has exported to its factory in South Carolina is commonplace in Germany, where there is no pressure for every student to get a traditional four-year degree. As early as age 15, roughly half of the students in Germany veer off the traditional classroom route to pursue “dual training” vocational programs that lead to existing jobs. The training is designed by the same companies that hire graduates—such as Volkswagen, Siemens, Lufthansa, and Bosch—ensuring that the skills students learn will be marketable. Students “choose from 326 professional trades that include diamond cutters, aircraft mechanics and even chimney sweeps,” reported And they don’t ask “What am I paying for?” because the companies pay them a monthly salary for their work.

Meanwhile, America gutted its vocational training programs in the 1970s, and they have not recovered. This loss has contributed to turning a $4 billion US trade surplus in 1970 into an $860 billion trade deficit today. Vocational training is one of the great voids in American education. It most hurts disadvantaged populations, who have been stung by the worst effects of outsourcing and globalization. Many students who desperately want to work with their hands (often high “sensors” on the Myers–Briggs test and high in 3D spatial intelligence) go to college because they don’t know what else to do. They follow the herd toward a four-year degree, but somewhere inside they wonder “What am I paying for?”

Besides a new emphasis on vocational programs, another solution is to provide more alternative pathways to a college degree. One such pathway that is working well now is the guaranteed admissions agreements that four-year colleges in many states have with community colleges. Admissions are contingent on students achieving a certain GPA in community college and taking certain required courses. By starting at a community college and transferring—and often living at home to save on room and board costs for two years—many students are taking the sting out of the price of higher education.

Downsizing is another imperative to restore some normalcy to higher education. The length of college itself can be downsized to three years. Many Americans do not realize that in many other countries, such as the UK and France, three years is the norm for a college degree. And there are great colleges overseas offering staggeringly inexpensive—and sometimes free—degrees taught in English, in places like the Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Australia.

For example, total tuition for a standard three-year bachelor’s degree at the University of Amsterdam is $42,000 for non-European Union students. The school is ranked 55th in the world by QS and offers over 20 bachelor’s degrees taught in English. By comparison, a three-year bachelor’s costs $96,000 for international students at University College London, ranked fourth in the UK and eighth in the world by QS. At the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan, out-of-state tuition for four years totals over $210,000. Put differently, a single year at either of the two American schools costs more than an entire bachelor’s degree at the University of Amsterdam, and two years at the two American schools cost more than an entire bachelor’s degree at University College London. The American degrees take an extra year to complete. The European schools offer world-famous cities and the chance to explore Europe and study or work for up to a year in an additional country through the European Union’s ERASMUS+ study abroad program. Thus, I tell my students that they should seriously consider going to college abroad.

And the most obvious downsizing needed is in college administration, which is bloated ad absurdum. Consider that the University of Pennsylvania paid its “chief diversity officer” some $580,000 in the fiscal year ending in 2018. Meanwhile, Penn’s adjunct professors are paid about $6,000 per class. So, for the price of one chief diversity officer, 96 additional classes could have been offered.

Moreover, to deliver what students are paying for, colleges are woefully in need of accountability. If K–12 teachers don’t deliver—for example, if students don’t achieve on AP tests or if the teacher is grading unfairly—parents and administrators will pull the fire alarm in a heartbeat, and rightfully so. By contrast, college professors often get away with using poorly designed, invalid assessments and leaving huge gaps in instruction, with no real accountability. Students pay the price. Thus given that part of college is credentialing, should professors be held accountable for ensuring the value of the credentials they essentially regulate by having standardized exit exams, and tests to get out of college rather than just to get in? Stanford classicist and National Humanities Medal winner Victor Davis Hanson thinks so:

Just as expensive new roofs are not supposed to leak, $100,000 educations should not leave students unprepared for the real world upon graduation. How does society know whether students’ expensive investments in their professors and courses have led to any quantifiable knowledge? … Could bachelor’s degrees be predicated on certifying that graduates possess a minimum level of common knowledge?
Lawyers with degrees can only practice after passing bar exams. Doctors cannot practice medicine upon the completion of M.D. degrees unless they are board certified. Why can’t undergraduate degrees likewise be certified? What would happen if some students from less prestigious state schools graduated from college with higher exit-test scores than the majority of Harvard and Yale graduates? What if students still did not test any higher in analytics and vocabulary after thousands of dollars and several years of lectures and classroom hours? Would schools then cut back on ‘studies’ courses, the number of administrators or lavish recreational facilities to help ensure that students first and foremost mastered a classical body of common knowledge?

As Hanson suggests, cutting back is just what many colleges need to do. Less is more. And just as many K–12 students have ditched floundering traditional schools for homeschooling, co-ops, and classical schools focusing almost entirely on academics, extreme downsizing of the college experience may also be on the horizon. One way to downsize is to shift to a back-to-basics academic philosophy, such as the Great Books approach, which is available in some form at dozens of colleges. Another way to downsize is for leaders to have the courage to force schools to simply get sober on the financial side. In 2013, Mitch Daniels froze tuition at below $10,000, where it will remain until 2023. This has forced the whole school to make cuts. “When you impose a (budget) limit,” Daniels told the Chicago Tribune, “people suddenly begin to do common sense things they should have done before … When money is easy, when you can dial up tuition or fees, people tend to postpone even the most basic efficiencies."

Perhaps we are on the cusp of a backlash that will pare away more of the useless majors, ideologies, gimmicks, and excesses and re-center the college experience around real dialogue and learning. The Stephen Curry Effect will continue to expose the meaninglessness of college rankings, contrived diversity, and hollow exclusivity. And the Internet will continue to undermine the monopoly on rare books and expertise that colleges once held.

Now that the books are accessible to nearly everyone, it has become ever more apparent that access is not knowledge. Computers cannot bring knowledge alive. Only teachers and students can do that. Finding ways to facilitate this should be the primary focus of every college, because that’s what students are paying for.

Robert C. Thornett

Robert C. Thornett has taught in seven countries and has written in The Diplomat, The American Mind, American Affairs, Education Next, Modern Diplomacy, Earth Island Journal, and Yale Environment 360.

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