What's the Point of College?

Randall Stephens

If you haven't already checked it out, have a look at Louis Menand's New Yorker essay, "Live and Learn: Why We Have College," June 6, 2011. The Pulitzer Prize-winning intellectual historian and Harvard professor considers the changing nature of college in recent years and the various ideals that have shaped higher ed. He also discusses several books that take stock of the situation. Are we in the midst of a major change in higher education? Says Menand:

Before 1945, √©lite private colleges like Harvard and Yale were largely in the business of reproducing a privileged social class. Between 1906 and 1932, four hundred and five boys from Groton applied to Harvard. Four hundred and two were accepted. In 1932, Yale received thirteen hundred and thirty applications, and it admitted nine hundred and fifty-nine—an acceptance rate of seventy-two per cent. Almost a third of those who enrolled were sons of Yale graduates. . . .

The system appears to be drawing in large numbers of people who have no firm career goals but failing to help them acquire focus. This is what Arum and Roksa believe, anyway. Students at very selective colleges are still super-motivated—their motivation is one of the reasons they are selected—and most professors, since we are the sort of people who want a little gold star for everything we do, still want to make a difference to their students. But when motivation is missing, when people come into the system without believing that what goes on in it really matters, it’s hard to transform minds.

If there is a decline in motivation, it may mean that an exceptional phase in the history of American higher education is coming to an end. That phase began after the Second World War and lasted for fifty years. Large new populations kept entering the system. First, there were the veterans who attended on the G.I. Bill—2.2 million of them between 1944 and 1956. Then came the great expansion of the nineteen-sixties, when the baby boomers entered and enrollments doubled. Then came co-education, when virtually every all-male college, apart from the military academies, began accepting women. Finally, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, there was a period of remarkable racial and ethnic diversification.>>>