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Celebrate Higher Education - Palgrave Macmillan Authors

In Their Own Voices - John R. Thelin

John R. Thelin is the co-author of Philanthropy and American Higher Education (9781137319968). In his own words, Thelin weighs in on the current state of American colleges and examines its naysayers and its advocates.

Good Works and Great Expectations: American Higher Education’s Unfinished Business

John R. Thelin

Only in America. Higher education in the United States is an extensive, exciting venture in which going to college is indelibly linked to the American Dream of opportunity and achievement. Americans have great expectations that our colleges and universities can simultaneously promote equity and excellence. It’s a heritage worthy of our celebration – and of our continued resolution to work on this unfinished business.

A distinctive strand in this American mixture of idealism and realism is philanthropy. We are a nation of donors and joiners. This was true in 1815 as it is in 2015. And our colleges and universities are center stage in both giving and receiving. According to the Council for Aid to Education in 2014 charitable giving to American colleges and universities reached an historic high level. Colleges raised $37.45 billion. Not only was the amount high, the trajectory showed acceleration and growth, posting just about an 11% increase in giving since 2013. Harvard, as befits its stature as the oldest and wealthiest institution, led the way by raising $1.16 billion – part of its $6.5 billion fund raising campaign. Stanford already had completed its own five-year campaign to raise $6.5 billion. Looking across the landscape of American higher education and society, one finds reaffirmation of “Giving and Sharing” as an enduring – and endearing – American tradition.

Prosperity brings problems – and responsibilities. We are left with serious questions on how and where to channel this generosity. Such questions of policies and practices intersect with national concerns over schisms in American life and education, known as the “opportunity gap.” And, ultimately this leads to such related issues as the rising costs and prices of going to college. Philanthropy and private giving, of course, are crucial in any serious consideration of student financial aid. All these deliberations lead to periodic reflection on why as Americans we emphasize going to college – and paying for college.

It includes a voice that makes “the case against college” – again! Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation has received a great deal of press coverage for his writings and talks about “The End of College.” Three years ago the entrepreneur Peter Thiel put up money that paid outstanding high school students to pursue paths and projects away from a college campus. Now, a flurry of articles report about bright, enthusiastic high school students who consciously reject going to college. A conspicuous example is Alex William’s proclamation of “Saying No to College” in the New York Times that includes a caption proclaiming that for high achievers, “College is for suckers!” This “case against college” may be heretical to our higher education orthodoxy. But it is not new. From 1870 to 1890 enrollments at most colleges declined even though the national population grew. College presidents were perplexed about the loss of appeal “going to college” held for young Americans. The School of Hard Knocks trumped the College of Liberal Arts if you were an inventor or an investor. Ambitious young Americans wanted to get on with their pursuits and profits. They saw four years of college as lost time and wasted opportunity.

Even the learned professions of medicine and law seldom required a college education – or even a high school diploma. And, for most 18-year-olds whose parents were farmers or shop keepers, you had to stay home to help with the family business. Tuition was not an obstacle because it was incredibly cheap – seldom more than $100 per year. When college presidents made desperate offers to attract students by lowering tuition and waiving entrance examinations, there were few takers and lots of empty classroom seats. College officials failed to understand that for most American families the loss of a child’s earnings was a more important consideration than even no tuition charge in making a decisive case against college.

But that was then and this is now. The current advocates for the case against college may be correct in pointing out that a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful. What this ignores is that the overall strength of American higher education in the 20th century has been less spectacular yet important -- namely, to educate for civil society and expertise.

It was true not only for preparing young people for law and medicine, but also pharmacy, engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics, teaching, social work, clergy, nursing, accounting, forestry, public health and other professionals – and to help educate them to be concerned professionals and informed citizens that would lead and staff new organizations in the public and private sector.

Let’s reconsider Steven Jobs’s memorable 2005 Stanford commencement speech as Exhibit A in the case against college. First, Jobs did not opt not to go to college. He went to Reed College and dropped out – a very different life choice than not going to college at all. Second, even after dropping out, he stayed close to the Reed College campus – its students, faculty, resources and opportunities – all to his educational and vocational gain. Third, his explanation for dropping out – disorientation and uncertainty – probably were signs that a liberal education was prompting him to consider and confront complex questions of purpose and place. Perhaps Reed College was “doing its job” for Jobs?

Above all, doesn’t it seem strange and conveniently safe that Steven Jobs gave his inspirational talk to Stanford graduates who momentarily were about to receive their coveted Stanford degrees? I wager that most in that audience were delighted with Jobs’s message urging them to pursue their dreams – and equally delighted that they were buoyed by the experience, friendships, faculty and learning -- and degree -- on all counts that going to college had made opportune. The Steven Jobs inspirational talk would have been more daring as a “case against college” had he chosen to deliver it to 16-year-olds at, e.g., an underfunded inner city public high school where students are trying to make plans about adult life and options without a lot of advantages. But he didn’t – and for good reason. That’s because we know that going to college and earning a college degree usually enhances one’s opportunities and options – and earnings.

Whether in 1880 or 2015, the historical message is that there are good reasons to go -- or not to go -- to college. And, given the diversity of American higher education, the choices are complicated by the options of where to go – such as two-year vocational vs. four-year liberal arts college or small campus versus large flagship state university -- land what to study – and for what end – an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or perhaps prelude to an advanced degree or certificate. We also have in the United States a long tradition of some professions such as performing arts and major league baseball where one need not have a college education. The recent articles do not make the case against college – they make a case, or several cases, depending on an individual’s situation and goals.

In sum, the fervent articles denigrating college unwittingly make indirect and direct cases of numerous good reasons to go to college. Why, of course, the exceptional genius does not need the delay of required courses. But even an icon such Mark Zuckerberg did gain from going to Harvard by finding the name and inspiration for “Facebook” – not from Philosophy 101 but from the booklets distributed during freshman orientation week. How to calculate the net worth of that informal collegiate experience? And for the multitude of bright, talented committed high school graduates who were not selected for Peter Thiel’s highly selective program, might not there be a thoughtful choice about college that just might provide some good learning and opportunities?

Kevin Carey’s forecasting of “The End of College” correctly identifies such recent innovations as internet courses tied to the certification of “badges” as new forms which may reduce the appeal that a traditional campus may have to a substantial number of potential students. Important to keep in mind, however, is that higher education has always coexisted with and confronted new ways of delivering instruction and awarding course and degree credit. So, my own observation is that we enter an era which is more aptly characterized as the “Change of College” rather than its evaporation or demise.

The net result is that we do not have “The Case” against college – but the more subtle, provocative question of many cases for and against going to college as befits a complex, diverse and credentialed American society. Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Maybe not going to college is not such a great idea.

No matter how one answers such questions, there’s little doubt that the American tradition of philanthropy will shape our responses as we once against connect past and present as participant-observers in continually re-examining American higher education. We face what I call a “Future Tense Imperfect” in which our colleges and universities – and their supporters – are concerned and not complacent. Now that’s cause for celebration!

John R. Thelin is a Professor at the University of Kentucky. He is co-author with Richard W. Trollinger of the book Philanthropy and American Higher Education, published in 2014 by Palgrave Macmillan.

* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan
*(Note: the author thanks the Editors of Inside Higher Ed for granting permission to draw from materials the author wrote in his January 11, 2013 article.)

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