Acton Institute Powerblog

When Did College Education Reduce To Making Money?

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saving-money-for-collegeSomeone should tell university administrators and educators that their primary purpose is to guarantee that graduates will have better incomes than those who are not fortunate enough to attend college. In addition, colleges and universities are now, it seems, supposed to be places where everyone equally becomes one of the “Joneses.”

In an article titled, “Rethinking the Rise of Inequality“, Eduardo Porter of the New York Times writes that college education is about solving the income disparity problem. Porter opens the story with this odd statement: “Many Americans have come to doubt the proposition that college delivers a path to prosperity.” What? Is that what college is about? Making people prosperous? What college has making graduates prosperous as its mission? Why would anyone go to college just to become economically “prosperous”?

Are colleges off the target then? Are they missing their new true calling? The mission of Brown University is “to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” Clemson University states, “Our primary purpose is educating undergraduate and graduate students to think deeply about and engage in the social, scientific, economic, and professional challenges of our times. The foundation of this mission is the generation, preservation, communication, and application of knowledge.” Fort Lewis College (Colorado), says that its mission is to offer “accessible, high quality, baccalaureate liberal arts education to a diverse student population, preparing citizens for the common good in an increasingly complex world.”

Do these colleges, and many others, simply not get it? It seems that these schools are primarily interested in student learning and the formation of good citizens, so when did college reduce to being a means of addressing “income inequality”?

The Times article reports that something is wrong in America because there is growing skepticism in the country that college education is a means to a good life.

In a poll conducted last month by the College Board and National Journal, 46 percent of respondents — including more than half of 18- to 29-year-olds — said a college degree was not needed to be successful. Only 40 percent of Americans think college is a good investment, according to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center. On a pure dollars-and-cents basis, the doubters are wrong.

Wrong? Really? Since when is annual income used as a measure of “success”? Are only high-income earners “successful”? So a football player is more successful than a third grade teacher? Have we become so base and utilitarian as a society that we now measure the good life by income? Are we that materialistic? Are we now that narcissistic? Are we that consumeristic? The answer to all of these questions is “Yes.” American society has such an inverted understanding of the good life that college has been reduced to simply a means of upward economic mobility instead of a place where men and women are educated and formed into more virtuous citizens. Our country’s narcissistic materialism has created a neurotic obsession with disparities between the incomes of individuals, which has devalued the learning goals and outcomes of what colleges exist to accomplish. There is a major disconnect here. I wonder if this explains why many parents do not want their children studying the humanities in college.

Besides, who cares if there are disparities between individuals? What really matters is whether or not our children and young adults are being prepared to bring skills to our global marketplace that contribute to the common good, while being formed in the process. It is a fact of life, and one that benefits us all, that disparities in skills will yield disparate incomes in a free society. Maybe it’s time to abandon the distortion that college is a means to “the American Dream” and replace it with an attention to the types of things that colleges say they exist to accomplish in their own mission statements. It seems that historically those are the types of values that produce the leaders and innovators who make the world a better place.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.


  • Andrew Orlovsky

    College are now infamous for two things, wild parties and far-left professors who look forward to “evangelizing” their students in a worldview different than they were raised. The only benefit I see to attending a public college is to learn technical knowlege for a career, like engineering or medicine. I went to public school, the only “character education” i got there was from Campus Crusade for Christ.

  • George Monahan

    As a History professor at a community college, I live with this kind of thinking every day. College has become a trade school. The Liberal Arts are considered a waste of time and vigorous intellectual inquiry an obstacle to career training.

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  • Charles

    As a parent, though, the financial return on the investment of a college degree is something that I have to take into account when deciding whether to pay for my kid’s school. If I have a kid that wants to go major in art history or theater at a private school that will cost over $100K, then the issue of how that kid is going to make a living after school is a practical concern that has to be addressed. The extreme cost of college education, the bleak job prospects for recent graduates, and the realities of needing to make a living simply make pie-in-the-sky, education-for-its-own-sake thinking a luxury that middle class families can’t afford. A person who truly values education and learning is going to do it regardless of whether they’re at college, or whether they’re studying the liberal arts.

    And don’t even get me started on student debt. I could never, in good conscience, advise any student to go into debt for law school right now, or for an MBA (one of the most useless “advanced” degrees around). Med School, masters in accounting, nursing school… Safer investments, but wiser to avoid debt as much as possible.

    Articles of this type, where academics bemoan the consumerization of education and complain that colleges are becoming trade schools, seem to be wholly cut off from the reality of how academics are running schools. It’s the colleges that have bloated their costs with unnecessary programs, perks, and administration. It’s the colleges that have gotten fat off student loan funds and need the spigot to keep running or else, heaven forbid, they might have to fire a few useless administrators. It’s the colleges that keep accommodating lazy, whiny, barely literate students by lowering standards so more can enroll and pay tuition. So, a substantial part of the finger-pointing over the consumerization of education has to go toward the educators themselves.

  • Paul Frantizek

    In my opinion, the adoption of a purely economic, utilitarian attitude towards education was inevitable once it became secularized.

    Keep in mind the Christian roots of liberal arts education. It began as an outgrowth of Dominican and Jesuit ideas regarding intellectual understanding and its role in spiritual development.