de Guardiola: Teaching Thinking

The value of higher education cannot be measured merely by numbers.

by Mercedes de Guardiola | 10/4/16 12:15am

High school seniors are entering an exciting times in their lives, one most of us have probably blocked from our memories — applying to colleges.

To keep themselves relevant in the age of dying news media, many news outlets have gone into the business of creating the “Ultimate Guide to Colleges That You Will Ever Find Anywhere.” In the past few weeks, we’ve seen top college rankings from U.S. News & World Report, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and even Playboy. If you’re really interested in the topic, there are lists for anything and everything: top colleges for international students, top colleges by major and top colleges for partying — where, thankfully for our administration, Dartmouth is not in the top 10.

In looking through these rankings, I am struck by their emphasis on numbers. We’re always looking and evaluating and judging based on the numbers — average salary after graduation, number of majors offered, class size and more.

Colleges are certainly just as compliant in this reliance on numbers, though there would never be enough space to capture the entire essence of a high school senior on one page, applicants are reduced to simple statistics, little more than a jumble of SAT and AP scores. Many schools want to boast about how exclusive they are, as if the number of students rejected somehow correlates to the quality of the education they can offer.

This isn’t to say that one should never judge colleges based on numbers. At a time when the student loan debt crisis is only getting worse, families should examine the amount of financial aid available and the type of salaries students get after graduation. Students may also want to consider the size of the faculty and school they want to go to.

With the price of college rising unsustainably, the question is now how to really judge the value of higher education. But, in my time at Dartmouth, I’ve become increasingly concerned by the growing reliance on numbers to judge the worth of an education. With no true qualifier at hand to study the undergraduate mind, we’ve turned to reductionist numbers that can no longer reflect our experiences as students.

Grade inflation stands out as a particularly important and widespread problem with no easy fix. Potential employers, parents and the institutions themselves use grades to easily judge their students, even though such evaluations only have as much power as we choose to give them. At the end of the day, are grades a measure of how well one student did compared to peers? That certainly isn’t true at Dartmouth. Should we choose to adopt a grade scale quota? What do professors do if all students do equally well?

Are grades indicators of how much one knows the course material? Perhaps, but that doesn’t account for the nuances of learning. It’s entirely possible to gain a good grade just by spewing out information and forgetting it a day later, and equally possible to fail even if one grew immensely as a person and learned new and valuable skills.

Another favorite number colleges brag about lately is the median salary earned by alumni after graduation. However, for Dartmouth, the high percentage of alumni going on to high-paying finance and consulting jobs skews the numbers. This distracts us from discussing whether or not Dartmouth students are going on to meaningful jobs and affecting change in the world. On campus, one of the frequent complaints among students is that the Center for Professional Development really only provides resources for those looking to go into finance or consulting — and I can personally attest to this as a senior going through the job struggle.

No institute of higher education, especially liberal arts institutions such as Dartmouth, should be in the business of churning out students to fit one particular mold. Rather, Dartmouth should focus on ensuring that its students go on to be leaders in every field, regardless of pay. It’s foolish to say that salaries are the only indicator of a job’s value. For example, America is currently facing a teaching crisis because of low pay rates and high turnovers, even though teaching directly affects our future generations and will decide whether America will continue to be a global superpower.

Students considering the nonprofit sector alternative corporate routes should be given just as much support as those considering finance. It is in Dartmouth’s interest to give its students the best start possible, Even if they don’t contribute to the lauded median salary. Quit focusing so much on what median salaries will be; rather, look at whether the College prepares its students for any type of job, and what its alumni go on to do.

Ultimately, the numbers discussion leads to a large question: what is the value of a higher education? Fundamentally, the value of going to college, especially one like Dartmouth, is to learn how to think critically. That value cannot be shown by numbers alone. This value has never been more true than it is today, when there is a growing concern over increasing job automation. The ability to think critically is the most important factor that will distinguish Dartmouth graduates in the future.

So, as high school seniors begin to apply to colleges, why don’t news outlets publish lists of recent graduates’ most interesting accomplishments rather than talking about how many students with outrageously high scores applied. Why not discuss how each school challenges its students to think, how it teaches students to become leaders as the world faces more and more problems every day? If schools can teach students to think critically, and, in the process, send them off to high paying jobs, that is completely fine. But first, let’s start looking at whether colleges really challenge their students to think — and if they don’t, what we can do to fix it.