What Do You Want From College?

By Gordon S. Jones
Founder and Faculty,
Mount Liberty College

When it comes to higher education in the United States today, it seems to me that there are at least three realities that we need to recognize and try to harmonize.

The first is that our system of higher education is broken, corrupt, and irretrievable. That results in students getting, at best, a defective, and at worst, a politicized education, at a cost that is so exorbitant as to approach obscenity.

Secondly, one of the reasons parents and students submit to the indoctrination and robbery of the system is that we have transformed society into one where individuals are judged on the basis of their group membership and/or paper credentials with little or no connection to anything that happens in the real world.

The third reality is that, in an effort to avoid the costs while acquiring the credentials, students and their parents are forgetting the historic purpose of education, which is to equip students with an understanding of the world, civilization, truth, beauty, religion, and humanity.

Let me start with the third of these, and work backward.

Any secondary student approaching his or her senior year, whether in a traditional high school, a public charter, a private school, or homeschooled, and contemplating the prospect of higher education, should ask the following question: “What is it I want?”

Here are some possible answers to that question:

  1. The quickest path to a degree that will get me a well-paying job;
  2. As little debt as possible;
  3. A social matrix in which I can find a mate, develop my athletic skills, or my musical, choreographic, or artistic talents;
  4. Preparation for a graduate degree in law, business, medicine, communications, public relations, publication, one of the hard sciences (chemistry, physics), or one of the soft sciences (psychology, sociology);
  5. An education providing exposure both broad and deep to the currents of thought extending from pre-history to the present that make us what we are today.

The last of these was the aim of higher education until the 1960s, when education, along with just about everything else, changed. Since then the first and fourth of these have become more important, and while they are not wrong in themselves, the problems to which the second responds have made the first increasingly prominent.

The result is that the traditional (and, I believe) true purpose of education has been eroded from the top and the bottom until there is very little of it left.

Prospective freshmen (and their parents), foreseeing a mountain of debt at the end of a four-year college career ($32,000 and rising), are prompted to get it as cheaply as possible. Thus the growth of relatively inexpensive community colleges where students can get the first two years of college out of the way, get an associate degree, and then either go directly into the workforce or transfer to a state-run four year college with only two years of crushing expense to finance.

To illustrate, tuition for a full-time (12-18 credit hours) student at a Utah community college is about $131 per credit hour. That compares with $320 PCH at the University of Utah.

An even cheaper way to finance those first two years is thru “concurrent enrollment,” which appears to be the newest educational fad. Under this arrangement, high school juniors and seniors (or even younger students) can enroll concurrently in courses provided by a local community college. Thus, for example, a three-credit course in political science at Utah Valley University can be had for $35, instead of the $805 it would normally cost. It is quite common these days for students to graduate from high school with an associate degree, at almost no cost, and then to go either directly into the workforce or to move into upper-level college courses.

In either case, the students will not have been exposed to what we used to call “general education” courses at the college level. Yes, you may say, but they were exposed to those courses; the exposure just happened when they were still in high school.

My answer to this objection rests on several years of teaching college-high school concurrent enrollment courses to high school students. In virtually every case, what those students were interested in was not the type of education outlined in point five (above), but simply and solely in saving money. While these students were often (not always) capable of doing college-level work (particularly in light of the “race to the bottom” forces diluting college courses from any of their historic rigor), the fact is that they weren’t interested. Their interest was in getting those courses out of the way as quickly and as cheaply as possible. More than one told me that they didn’t even care what grade they got. As long as they passed, they would get a piece of paper that would get them into a four-year college as a junior, or into a job. In that respect, a C was as good as an A.

But point 5 is also eroded from the top. Once the general ed. requirements are “out of the way,” students can devote their junior and senior years to vocational preparation. If we think of the first two years as providing breadth in education, the final two years could be thought of as an opportunity for depth.

Or we used to be able to. Now, instead of a “major” like Russian Literature or Medieval History, majors today are in Black Studies, Movies and the Gay Man, Third World Liberation Studies, or LGBTQ Studies. Pre-med and pre-law majors were the lead-in to this debasement of the curriculum, but I’m not sure where they fit any more.

Neither the old nor the new curriculum actually prepared a student for a job. When I graduated from Columbia University with a degree in U.S. History, I was no more employable than is today’s Diversity Studies major. I had to get “trained,” which I did at Stanford University’s School of Education, after which I was qualified to teach. But Columbia, with its Core Curriculum, had given me the advantage of a broad exposure to civilization that informed my teacher training at every level. I was also prepared for a 30-year digression from teaching into my time at the nexus between politics and policy in Washington, D.C.

I have no idea where the Diversity Studies major goes to get training, or for what.

Thus instead of the old idea of a classical education based on the classical Trivium and Quadrivium, we now have the first two years obliterated by the economics of higher education and the last two years subsumed into job training. It is not surprising that at a modern multiversity, an English major can graduate without having ever read a Shakespearean play.

I tell prospective students that if they want a job, they can get that now. But if what they want is to be sure that they are always of value, they need to avoid the high-priced training and validation institutions and look for a school that can help them meet that goal

That is the goal which drove us to the founding of Mount Liberty College. The kind of education we provide will “prepare students for whatever the future might bring.”