What’s the point of a college education?

There have been a lot of articles questioning the value of a college education recently – particularly the value of a liberal arts education. Take, for example, Frank Bruni’s The Imperiled Promise of College and Michelle Singletary’s Not All College Majors Are Created Equal. These articles warn against choosing majors that tend to result in low-paying jobs (or no jobs at all). That’s why I was glad to read Alina Tugend’s article Vocation or Exploration? Pondering the Purpose of College, which argues that college students can and should study the humanities. As Ms. Tugend writes, the question is this: is the purpose of college to “ensure a good job after graduation,” or “to give students a broad and deep humanities education that teaches them how to think and write critically? Or can a college education do both?” I’m going with door number three.

In the article, Ms. Tugend notes that what students major in has a greater impact on their future earnings than in previous decades.

So does that mean I should urge our son to pursue a degree he doesn’t have any interest in because it may provide him with a higher-paying job — or any job, for that matter — after college?

No, Professor Carnevale said, because if you don’t like what you do, you won’t do it well. The point is that “young people now need to have a strategy,” he said. “If you major in art, realize you will have to get a master’s degree. The economic calculus has changed.”

I like that line – if you don’t like what you do, you won’t do it well.

When I was in college, my most rewarding classes were in the humanities. I specialized in medieval history and got an M.A. in Art History before I majored and got a job in Computer Science. Do I regret studying history and art history, where job options are extremely limited? Not in the least. I’m glad I have a background in the humanities – I think it makes me a more well-rounded, knowledgeable, appreciative person. (However, I’m lucky that I didn’t go into debt to get my degrees. If I did owe lots of money, perhaps I wouldn’t be so pro-liberal arts.) One of the best things about Columbia, my alma mater, is that it has a Core Curriculum. All undergrads, no matter what their major, are required to take classes like Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, where they have literally hundreds of pages of reading each week on everything from Homer to Dante to Freud. This was probably the highlight of my academic career.

Lastly, I was quoted in a Crain’s New York Business article last week – Goodbye, ‘bamboo ceiling’ – Corporate barriers spur Asian-Americans to start fast-growing enterprises, by Emily Laermer.

When Stefanie Weisman was Stuyvesant’s valedictorian in 1999, she said, the school was about half Asian. She described her time there as ‘the most intense four years of my life’ because of its competitiveness.

‘The students there are bright and hardworking, partly because there are so many Asian-American students,” she said, citing the influence of ‘tiger parents.’ . . . .

It’s also possible that tiger parenting ultimately backfires. Ms. Weisman, who is writing a book about academic success, said that those who enjoy learning – rather than studying because their parents insist – tend to do better professionally.


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