Odds Without Ends

I’ll never forget my first day at St. John’s University, and one certain student who profoundly altered my view of college.

As I waited in St. John’s Hall, room 101, for my core English professor, a student burst through the door and found his way to the empty seat next to mine. After a few seconds of silence, he looked at me and asked, “Hey, man, what class is this, anyway?”

I was taken aback by his question. “Um,” I replied, “English 1100C.”
The student thanked me and then immediately took out his laptop. Throughout the entire class that followed, he passed notes, fell asleep, and talked to friends on AOL Instant Messenger. Not once did he take out a pen or paper.

Watching this scene unfold brought a series of questions to my mind: Is this kid for real? Am I going to graduate with the same degree as him? Isn’t this supposed to be college?

That experience was my first impression of college, and it shattered any preconceived notions I may have had. Gone from my mind were the thoughts of students actively participating in class, raising interesting points, praising their peers for insightful comments, and all of that junk you see on television.

Instead, I saw high school all over again.
Over the last 30 years, college has effectively transitioned from an institution of higher learning and self-discovery to just another step towards getting a “decent” job.

Federal loans and grants, among other things, have led to a huge increase in the number of college graduates. This, on the outside, sounds terrific; after all, what can be bad about more students moving on to higher degrees?

The problem, however, is that the value of these college degrees has diminished greatly.
Recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that nearly one in three American adults has attained at least a bachelor’s degree, and this number is steadily growing. As a result, the amount of jobs that require an undergraduate degree is increasing. Employers have begun looking for a Masters or Ph.D. to further distinguish applicants.

In essence, the undergraduate college degree is slowly turning into what a high school degree was decades ago.
This is not inherently bad. Rather, the problem lies with the effect on students; many now treat college as just another step in the process, resulting in lackluster attitudes.

Disinterested students, like the one in my core English class, have overrun St. John’s and thousands of other colleges like it. They treat the University more like a trade school than an institution of higher learning.

It’s understandable why some students take this approach. However, those who adopt this attitude miss out on the opportunity to spend four years of their life in learning and self-discovery, a luxury they may never have again.

Seymour E. Harris, a former adviser to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, once noted, “It may be that we should stop putting so much emphasis in our own minds on the monetary value of a college education and put more emphasis on the intangible social and cultural values to be derived from learning.”

Although Harris spoke these words decades ago, they now ring true more than ever. Students need to view college as a period of growth in order to take full advantage of its possibilities.

I can only imagine what will be in store for our children and grandchildren. Will a Masters degree become standard for job applicants? Will students fall asleep in doctorate seminars, listening to their iPods and playing games on their laptops?
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen that student from my freshmen core English class. Maybe, by now, he’s moved onto his Masters degree. Let’s just hope he’s finally found a pen.