Rawlings on the University Degree as a Commodity

One of the most talked-about ideas in higher education at the moment is the commodification of university degrees. If a degree is a commodity, then we should evaluate it based primarily on how expensive it is and how it affects our future earnings. The degree as commodity also positions the student as consumer. Students who see themselves as “consumers” of degrees believe that, as with any product, their education should be shaped according to their desires. The classes should be constantly entertaining and not too onerous, and the professors should be amiable pseudo-parents whose main role is to praise student efforts.

Hunter Rawlings’ recent article in The Washington Post, “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one,” is important reading for all current and potential university students. Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa. He gives the clearest argument I’ve seen yet about how a university degree is not a purchase that must please you, but rather an endeavour that must challenge you. You don’t pay your money and then sit back and be educated and entertained, as though you’re at a movie. Just the opposite. The success of your education depends upon your hard work and your willingness to be challenged by tough tasks and tougher ideas.

As Rawlings explains:

“The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.”

And he continues:

“If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum. I know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges. And I have taught classes which my students made great through their efforts, and classes which my students made average or worse through their lack of effort.”

I agree with Rawlings, and as an instructor I’ve felt the stark difference between groups of students who are eager to learn and be challenged, and groups who seem to believe their only responsibility in class is to occupy a chair.

If we perceive degrees as commodities, we lose sight of the value of intellectual challenge, and therefore of the essence of university life.

“Resume” Virtues and “Eulogy” Virtues

Being a university student, or aspiring to be, can consume all your physical and mental energy. Applications, marks and references seem like the centre of the universe. And they are, in a way, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that university life is just one part of a bigger picture.

In The New York Times recently, columnist David Brooks wrote about his moral “bucket list.” He laments the fact that so many of us lose track of core values as we pursue academic and career goals:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

I like Brooks’ article as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of accomplishment and fulfillment. An excellent career is only strengthened by paying attention to the things that make you a deeply good person, too. Remembering that academic life is not everything also helps you stay strong during the inevitable setbacks in your studies. There’s always more to life than that which seems most pressing at the moment.

Brooks also reminds us that fulfilment comes from looking beyond ourselves:

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

It’s alright to focus entirely on your studies. You need to sometimes! But in those quiet moments between exams and papers, contemplate whether you’re doing all that you can to improve not only your academic self, but also the core virtues that make everything else worthwhile.

POSTSCRIPT: I have to mention that applicants who can show the sort of well-roundedness Brooks advocates are much more likely to wow admissions committees.