What is the point of college?

I have spent a long time making the case for college education and I see I used two different arguments interchangably.

The first of these was the human capital argument, the one about skills. Usually, given my line of work, this was about telling employers about work-ready graduates and students about jobs and income. After the universities, I used to cite 'graduate premium', not telling the whole story - that the figure is inflated out of proportion by the incomes of a few winners and collapse of the non-graduate income; most graduates have seen their income stagnate or decline in real terms ever since 2008. I used to argue that the quality of education is best expressed in the starting salary of the graduate (a desperate oversimplification that takes the labour market and all the implicit issues of race and gender out of the consideration) and that the countries should invest in colleges to gain competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.  

The other argument was the democracy argument, that a democratic society needs colleges. Higher education allows one to climb Maslow's ladder and create a polity of publicly minded leaders and cooperative citizens, not to mention a duty-conscious media and innovative businesses. This was, of course, before the age of Trump, when we still thought that the other side is full of 'deplorables', uneducated conspiracy-theory-believing drop-outs. Once the slick suit-wearing lawyers and bankers showed up on that side, that assumption did not really hold.

So, what really is the point of college? 

This is not a new question but sure needs a new answer. The human capital argument, admittedly flawed at its very conception, will not last the Covid cohort, who will graduate in the worst job market for many generations and be totally lost. And, this is not about 2020 - the bots and rapidly reconfigured remote processes will mean the full effects of shopfloor automation would be felt earlier than expected and college would be scrambling to catch up. 

The democracy argument has fared even worse and one can argue that college is more a place of training selfishness and oneupmanship than public-mindedness and cooperation. Friendships that last a lifetime are indeed formed in college, but given that college populations are increasingly monoculture, this creates no benevolent impulses for social life. Instead, it consists more of circles of exclusivity and 'networking', with all its utilitarian impulses.

So, as I continue to be in the sector, the question has no easy answers. Indeed, I am tracking the massive surge in literature globally asking the question, particularly as the impact on automation on labour markets become clear and the ideals of democracy and global cooperation are increasingly challenged. Thanks to these changes, the 'employability' conversation has become less naïve and the other factors, such as technology and labour market dynamics (though not the issues such as discrimination based on age, gender and race), have not yet entered the discussion. [There are some interesting work in economics on the role of chance in career success, but that has not yet reached university career services.]

In this discussion, I see new answers are always emerging but there is not one big hairy solution yet. This is good and refreshing, so unlike the pretensions of business literature, and the dynamic of this debate hopefully energise the logic of the college, right across the spectrum. My own work, so far, is at the very bottom of the value chain, the education for the masses, but even there, things are changing as the issues emerge and the stark reality of a labour market skewed against the narrowly educated becomes ever more apparent. In fact, this gives me a great perspective to look at all these discussions and all the challenges - the college question must be answered for the mass education in an age of mass higher education.

From this vantage point, the point of college is to give the students control of their lives! This is less recognisable at the privileged end of the higher education spectrum, where social capital and trust funds usually obscure the challenge of modern life - that all-pervasive anxiety and persistent lack of control! It's not just about automation, or populist leaders in Presidential palaces: It's much more, starting with withering away of religious fate, fracturing of popular culture, the breakdown of social contract between the employer and the employee, family lives revolving around material demands and boredom of routine life, all driving the hapless individual through the endless tunnel of conforming urbanity. The slogan 'take back control' resonates with its victims for a reason; golden age dreams are perfect escapes for people who feel utterly powerless in their daily lives.

I know talking about college for taking control of one's life sounds almost theological. The way to take back control, of one's own life, is to control one's desires, as Buddhists will tell us. There is some truth in this, and its secular counterpart will be to let students achieve a really good understanding of themselves and their worlds, ask the questions about what their own aspirations are in an informed and engaged way (and not following the latest fad) and live within the parameters they themselves define. One does not necessarily need to go to college to be able to do this, but the point of college education should be to enable them to do it, over and above everything else.


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