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On the American College Student

2009 October 6
by Richard N. Landers
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I recent came across this article from a 2009 senior at Ball State named Derek Wilson.  Let me give you a taste:

Have you ever stopped to think about the value of your education? Most of us are in college not because of a burning passion for a subject or to seek some intellectual pursuit, but merely because we want to make more money.  Making more money is and should be your motivation for attending college. Conventional wisdom says, “If you go to college, you’ll make more money.” Conventional wisdom is not always right. Going to college might be the worst decision of your life.

While I appreciate the candor of this young man, it also makes me retch a bit.

Now don’t get me wrong – I agree with some elements of what he’s saying.  College, at least the 4-year version we traditionally think about, is a bad decision for some.  The student who does not enjoy learning or who has always struggled with it, who does not seek to stretch themselves, who does not in any way seek to improve themselves other than to make money is probably better off going to trade school and becoming an electrician.  Of course, I’d put Mr. Wilson in that same category, but his aspirations seem to include an Economics Ph.D.  I suppose that’s just for the money, too.

The question of interest to me is one of selection.  Would I rather hire Derek Wilson, the finance/economics double-major that does everything for the money or Sally Sue, the sociology major who just does what she loves and hopes it will all work out after graduation?

And frankly, I don’t have an answer.

This kind of behavior sounds like somewhere between achievement striving and deliberateness, both facets of conscientiousness, a personality trait that predicts job performance across jobs.  While there might be a bit of a Machiavelli in his description of college motivation, I’m not sure that it would be detrimental in the average American workplace.  He sounds a bit like the ideal salesman – goal in mind, he will do whatever it takes, no matter the cost (even if it means suffering through classes in which he has no “burning passion”).

And whose fault is that?  Is it the educator who doesn’t instill enough passion into her teaching?  Is it the parents who just “went through the motions” themselves and never gave a reason for poor Derek to care about school?  Or is the natural product of a workplace where ruthlessness and competitiveness are too often rewarded?  Where is the problem?  Is there a problem?

And if there isn’t, why are the comments on his article so filled with vitriol?

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  1. October 7, 2009

    This is a tough one for me. I am a firm believer in the value of an education. I draw a very bold line between education and job training. These are not the same thing. The thing is, this line is very clear for me, but not so clear for most of the country. When we hear about our politicians and community leaders, we hear about the benefits of education in terms of economic returns. It should be no surprise then, that a whole generation of students have grown up expecting college to prepare them to make more money… the learning is just something that separates them from the actual benefit.

    As a result, I think we have poorly trained employees and a poorly educated populace.

    If I wanted to make money, apparently I should have become an electrician, plumber or carpenter in a major mid-western city. As it stands, I am very well educated, a practiced thinker and problem-solver, but I seldom have two dimes to rub together. Is this the way it should be? Who knows?

    The more important problem is that we keep misleading our youngsters, telling them that education=income. How do we fix this without risking loosing funding for all but a few universities?

  2. October 8, 2009

    I think what’s even worse than that is that society keeps misleading them into believing that income is a valuable life goal in and of itself. For most people, income alone is not enough, and when they enter the workforce after taking such an approach and find themselves miserable every day despite making good money, that should not be such a surprise.

    In my I/O class, when I teach about training, I characterize education as providing critical thinking, adaptation, and other general skills, while training fills in the gaps between those general skills and the specific skills required of a person on a job. That seems surprising to some. My worry is that many (or perhaps most) college students don’t know why they are in college in the first place.

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