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Perspectives: When College is a Means to an End

Out of frustration and in an effort to postpone a quiz, which the students just admitted to not have known about given their failure to consult the syllabus, I asked each student in my “Introduction to Psychology” course to tell me why s/he was attending this expensive private college in New York. I wanted them to hear each other so that they would collectively feel the gravity of their unified response: “I am here because I want a high-paying job and I know that I need to go to college to get that.” I have since facilitated this exercise in large public institutions in New York and Hawaii and have met nearly the same response, with subtle variations, in each setting.

Over the past six months, nearly every major news outlet has barraged us with stories titled, “Is College Worth It?” The articles define “worth” solely in economic terms and usually weigh the pros and cons of attending a four-year college while incurring severe debt. Several of these articles have suggested that four-year colleges may not be worth it in our economy. Yet, in September, The Wall Street Journal used research from the Economic Policy Institute to publish a story that reported  college was worthwhile because the degree leads to better job security in comparison with individuals who do not hold an undergraduate degree.

As a social-science educator, I have never created a syllabus with job preparation in mind. My curricula are modeled off Paolo Freire’s notions of critical thinking and participatory classrooms. Oftentimes, after the usual period of adjustment, I think this mode of teaching works well. But in the last year, as job prospects have shrunk for graduating students, the students have met my pedagogy with resistance or ambivalence.

Although not always obvious to an undergraduate student, I maintain that classes, which increase thinking skills, are invaluable — even in the marketplace. The students are less convinced. Students want skills to put on their resumes and “critical thinker” does not fare well next to “Swahili” or “geographic information systems.”  So how do we teach to those who are solely in college as a means to an end?  How can we make social-science instruction worth it educationally and not just monetarily? 

Each semester I have tried a variety of solutions to this predicament. Last year while teaching “Introduction to Urban Studies” at Hunter College, I integrated two “marketable” projects into the syllabus. For the first assignment, students created short audio podcasts of important places in their neighborhoods. Because of a lack of resources at the school, there was no official training session for how to record audio from a smartphone or computer, so I encouraged students to look online and ask friends for tutorials. Students then uploaded their audio (with assistance of a handout I created) onto a class website. The second assignment was ongoing throughout the semester. In groups, students created a weekly blog where they posted their reactions to readings and outside-the-classroom activities. Many students included photos and some added short self-produced videos to their postings. Students were also responsible for editing each other’s posts for content and clarity. 

During one class session that semester, a student complained about the difficulties of continuously posting to his blog. An older student, an owner of a business in Manhattan, N.Y., retorted that even if at times the blog proved a pain, the blogging skills would help them get a job. He said he would hire anyone from the class given they now had experience recording audio, researching technology, editing, writing, working in a group and maintaining a website.

To me, these assignments represented an ideal compromise of job-skill building for the students’ resumes and quality learning — all without conceding my educational values. But it’s not always that simple to create such a good match. For instance, now that I am in a psychology department it is a greater challenge to find creative ways to integrate “usable skills” into my “Psychology of Women” class — skills that make sense given the course’s curriculum. 

As someone who owes more than $50,000 in student loans, I sometimes wonder if my graduate degrees are worth it. I am not sure if college is for everyone. But for those who sit in my classroom, I can try to make it worth it for the students who are looking for the high-paying jobs and for those who are there with learning as a priority. 

Bree Kessler is a doctoral student in environmental psychology at CUNY and former instructor at Hunter College and Manhattan Marymount College. She teaches at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.

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