Chun: We Do Not Go to College

The college we experience and read about is completely divorced from reality.

by Steven Chun | 2/1/18 12:45am

Dartmouth College, the rest of the Ivy League, Stanford University, Williams College — these are colleges only by technicality. See, thinking about a general category often means thinking about the mean or median. When we think of the American worker, our national consensus converges to about the right median.

He (while the U.S. is 50.8 percent female, women make up 47 percent of the labor force) makes around $44,000 dollars, the mean salary of most police officers, construction foremen or high school teachers. The most common job is a retail salesperson. The average American has had some college education, but the average American does not have a college degree. But what does this college look like for the average American?

There’s no sprawling green, probably not much ivy. It’s not residential, and it’s not filled with full-time students. The application process was not cutthroat, and admission didn’t require months of expensive preparation for the ACT. So why does our image of college feature standardized tests, high GPAs and competitive applications? Why do we read The New York Times about “What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything)” — though to be fair, The New York Times’ readership probably is not representative of the median American. More importantly, why do we assign any weight to the experience of roughly 60,000 undergraduate students sprinkled around the Northeast who all happen to be in the same, somewhat weak, athletic conference?

It’s myopic to imagine our lives at Dartmouth as normal, and it’s even worse to base policy around that idea. Here are the numbers according to FiveThirtyEight: Half of college students work while taking classes and a third transfer. “In total, less than a third of U.S. undergraduates are ‘traditional’ students in the sense that they are full-time, degree-seeking students at primarily residential four-year colleges,” the website reports.

I am partial to sociologist Andrew Abbott’s argument in his 2002 Aims of Education Address at the University of Chicago that, “The reason for getting an education here — or anywhere else — is that it is better to be educated than not to be. It is better in and of itself. Not because it gets you something. Not because it is a means to some other end. It is better because it is better.” Abbot adds, “Education means figuring out how to arrange the finite things you can know, their varying levels of abstraction and detail, their mix of skill and data, fact and theory, so as to maximize the potential array of meaning that you can experience in the now.” Unfortunately, it is an argument that only works at the University of Chicago. To nearly all Americans, higher education holds meaning only as a vehicle of economic improvement. Yet instead of focusing on plummeting funding for state universities — the best guarantee of economic stability for millions of students — the headlines are on trigger warnings and student protests.

In this vein, the elite institutions of higher education are not those that boast the lowest acceptance rate but those that produce the most value for their students. The cornerstones of our educational system are those colleges that accept students whose background destines them for low-skill, low-pay work and graduate them into the middle and upper-middle classes. According to the Brookings Institute’s measure of value-added — the difference between observed graduate earnings and predicted earnings — Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University produces just as much of a benefit for its students as Stanford does but does so for nearly four times the students.

This perspective is not just important for policy and the rankings that are supposed to tell students which colleges are best for their future. It seems ignorant at best and snobby at worst to consider our lives at Dartmouth average. It’s a small point in a fairly omnipresent narrative of elite students’ inability to recognize themselves as the closest thing America has to an aristocracy. Elite universities are one of the foremost gatekeepers of the upper class. Regardless of where we have come from, our presence here is a graduation into a set of opportunities entirely divorced from those available to the average American.

I recently saw a video of a Dartmouth dorm room party where students danced while a projector flashed between “f— the neo-liberalists” and “f— the bourgeoisie.” I can only assume the revelers were practicing a form of intense irony. No matter what you were before Dartmouth, you’re the bourgeoisie now. Our experience of college doesn’t generalize well, and the Ivy League is not the engine of human capital for the American economy — so let’s stop treating it as such.