CON: Real-world experience trumps college education

Why do we go to colleges and universities? Is it to pay to write papers we write almost exclusively with information from free websites like Wikipedia? Or to prepare us for a world that will be radically different five years from graduation? The job of colleges today is to prepare students for jobs that will exist tomorrow.

Of course, the way to achieve that lofty goal is to teach students to learn for themselves, the vaunted “Critical Thinking.” But are we really going to fork over a sum in the neighborhood of a quarter-million dollars to the pockets of higher education? Do we also really need higher education to teach us how to think critically? Great thinkers across time have existed without college degrees, including contemporaries like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

But for those of us who do remain in school, we must ask if we gain that thought. A survey of the graduating class of 2009 by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa measured the “college learning assessment” (C.L.A.), a measure of critical thinking skills.

As the New York Times reported, “The students took the C.L.A. [as freshmen and] again at the end of their senior year. On average, they improved less than half of one standard deviation. For many, the results were much worse. One-third improved by less than a single point on a 100-point scale during four years of college.”

Luckily, college no longer holds a monopoly on education and knowledge. The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has steamrolled into the conversation in the last couple of years, with tens of thousands of people of all ages and nationalities enrolling in courses by the best at MIT, Stanford and elsewhere. Because of the flexibility of learning on your time, they are better suited for today’s busy potential entrepreneur.

Then where is the real value of college? After all, even the president has routinely called for a college education for everyone, so the demand must have a reason. Ask employers for answers.

When employers recently named the most important elements in hiring a recent graduate, college reputation, GPA and courses finished at the bottom of the list. At the top, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, were experiences outside of academics: internships, jobs, volunteering and extracurricular activities. Things with demonstrable, real-world value were unsurprisingly valued as such. College GPA, the actual metric of how much you “learn,” came in a stunning seventh.

It might not be fair to the professors, but maybe when you can’t hear in the back of your massive lecture hall, and opt to browse Facebook instead, you’re not doing too great a disservice to your future. There are many paths to learning in this world nowadays, but as the Beatles once said, we really get by with a little help from our friends.

See here for the counterargument: PRO: College education proves worthy of its cost.

Patrick Quinlan is a junior majoring in international studies and political science.