Widespread Myths about College

1. Almost everyone is suited to college.

2. College’s principal function is to prepare a student for a specific occupation.

3. Everyone should complete college in five years or less.

4. Colleges should meet all student needs.

5. Popular professors are good professors.

6. College courses should be entertaining.

7. Student evaluations improve college level education.

8. Colleges should accommodate all ranges of personal beliefs.

Each of these “myths” is widely held by a great number of college students and their parents, as well as by a significant segment of the U.S. population. Each has a grain of truth behind it but is effectively misleading if not totally false.

Not everyone is suited to college, either in terms of intellectual ability, ambition, inclination, and determination. While everyone needs a skill set to succeed in providing for himself or herself, the traditional college education isn’t always the best place for each individual to obtain that skill set. Often, for some individuals, it’s absolutely the worst place.

With the increasing cost of college, more and more students have to work to pay for their education. Working means they have less time to devote to studying an often these students either take lighter course loads or drop out for a semester here and there to obtain the money to continue. Others, such as in Utah, often take off several years for various reasons, including church missionary work, voluntary “sabbaticals,” or even just to “find themselves.”

College is not a vocational school. Most college-educated young people graduating today will change jobs and/or fields at least several times after graduation, yet some state legislatures and others, such as accrediting bodies, are now “grading” colleges on the percentages of graduates employed in their undergraduate field of study.

Colleges are now required to provide an ever-greater range of “personal” services to students, going far beyond course advisors to counseling, special arrangements for test-taking, study-abroad programs, even design-your-own course/major options. This proliferation of “services” is a significant factor in increasing college costs. At the same time, students are less and less willing to spend time outside the classroom in pursuit of their studies. Even so, the demands for more “services” and options continue to grow at the same time as colleges and universities are trying to reduce the instructional costs by utilizing more adjunct professors and fewer full-time faculty.

There are good professors and popular professors. Some few popular professors are good, and quite a few not-so-popular professors are good. Studies show, however, on average, that the very most popular professors are the least demanding and easiest graders.

Likewise, education is about widening the students’ knowledge bases and skills, and for most students, that process is often uncomfortable. Courses that are primarily entertaining seldom stretch the students to improve their capabilities and understanding.

A rather wide range of studies show that the more student evaluations are employed as an evaluation tool, the greater the likelihood that the curriculum is being dumbed down. The age period when most students attend college is that period of their life when they’re the most self-centered and, therefore, the most resistant to change. It’s also the period when they need to come to grips with the fact that they are not special and that they are not the center of the universe. That’s a large part of what a good college education does. Students at this age evaluate based largely on what they want, not what they need. Giving them what they want is the easy way for colleges to fill seats… and create empty and/or closed minds.

When I taught, I had students who were offended by the beliefs and the words in certain assignments, and who wanted special assignments in place of those works assigned. There have been numerous court cases of students demanding not to have to read passages that conflicted with their personal and religious beliefs. A college education is not about restricting knowledge, but about exposing students to a wider range of information and opinion. They’re not required to agree with it, only to be exposed to it so that they know what it is and what it represents.

If these “myths” continue to proliferate, colleges will continue to become more like high schools… and neither the students, nor society, need another four years of high school.

10 thoughts on “Widespread Myths about College”

  1. Thom says:

    This is one reason why I just scratch my head when politicians promise to make sure everyone gets a college education. If everyone has a college degree, a college degree becomes meaningless. We’d see companies requiring a college degree to dig ditches or nail shingles or flip burgers. College is not for everyone, and not every job requires college training. And many of the aspects of a classical education that made people more independent thinkers have been eliminated from the curriculum.

    One of my favorite professors in college was one I was warned by others about, claiming Mormons could never get an A in his class. But that was the only class that fit my schedule, so I sucked it up and hoped for the best. Sure enough, I got C’s on my first couple of papers. So I went and asked him about it. He claimed I was being too wishy-washy, trying to compromise the two sides, not take one and argue it.

    So I determined I’d show him. On the next paper I took the opposite view as him (he was never shy about his views) and argued it with both barrels. And I got an A. I went on to develop a friendship with that professor and came to respect his intellectual integrity. Yes, he had his beliefs, but he didn’t let that get in the way of his job–teaching students to write persuasive essays. And privately he was capable of discussing a wide variety of controversial topics with rigor, but not passion, and would give me kudos for posing ideas he’d not yet heard, either for or against his beliefs.

    Sadly that professor would likely be run out of most colleges these days simply because he made the students work and think. Those students who thought they could simply just adopt his viewpoint and get an A were disappointed, and I’ll bet they zinged him just as badly on evaluations as the Mormons who thought he was persecuting them, when all the time he was just insisting that they learn to devise reasonable arguments and defend them in writing.

    I loved my time at college–perhaps a little too much, since it took me eight years to get my degree, which has nothing to do with what I’m doing now. But I loved it because I was there to learn, and I didn’t limit myself to just getting my degree, but took opportunties to explore a little. And that, more than anything else, has served me the most in the years since. I learned how to learn and to not fear learning something new. I’m not so sure colleges teach that anymore.

  2. Charles Elkins says:

    That everyone is not suited to attend a college is my true belief as well. I do not believe that native intelligence is always determinative either. Some very smart men and women will fare much better in life and be much happier if they do not go to college, but enter a craft, trade, business, or occupation that does not require a college degree but suits their personalities and natural skills and inclinations. Too often I believe that college paths are forced on smart individual to their detriment. Not everyone wants to or can be a doctor, lawyer or engineer even if he or she has the intellect to practice such professions.

  3. Joe says:

    Idealist perhaps representing times gone by speaking.

    No, not everyone should be required to have a degree. There should be honor that is universally recognized in non-intellectual employment. But degrees should be available to anyone that wants one, and for free. Why would we want to pay for that as a society? Because a democracy benefits from people who can debate all sides of an issue intelligently.

    Of course, the reason this ideal may be forgotten is that it is much simpler for moneyed interests to get their will done if they can sway public opinion with fake studies and ideas that appeal to simpletons.

  4. mikor says:

    Good points, but they do not entirely cover the issues. You do say that the beliefs hold a grain of truth, and with that I will accept them. I did, though, wanted to expand on this “grain”:
    1. Almost everyone is suited to college.
    > Totally agree with your point — this is a bad myth.

    2. College’s principal function is to prepare a student for a specific occupation.
    > If you look at the history of higher education, you’ll see that there were a lot of vocational schools. Names like ‘Law School’, ‘School of Medicine’, ‘College of Engineering’ all reflect a history of vocational schools. Over time, the distinction between those and colleges (or more frequently, universities) teaching liberal arts or arts in general, have eroded away, on the whole, for the better. Still, a number of majors are still expected by the students, and are presented by colleges, as preparation for specific careers.

    3. Everyone should complete college in five years or less.
    > Agreed with your point.

    4. Colleges should meet all student needs.
    > Agreed with your point again.

    5. Popular professors are good professors.
    > While not all popular professors are good professors, which disproves this myth, popular professors are often not those who grade easily, but those who are good at explaining complex material, and make it easier for students to succeed in their subsequent courses. The best ignite the students’ imaginations and make them work harder in courses they would otherwise have barely passed.

    6. College courses should be entertaining.
    > See above — good professors can make even introductory statistics be entertaining.

    7. Student evaluations improve college level education.
    > It’s a highly imperfect evaluation mechanism, but it’s better than nothing. The very beginning of colleges and academies were collections of private tutors, and students voted with their pocketbooks. Ultimately, it’s still the case today — if the colleges and departments don’t give the choices the students want, they will lose their students and ultimately their funding. Whether you agree with those choices or not, the choices — and their consequences — belong to the students. It behooves for schools to understand the impact the courses have, and student evaluations are one tool.

    8. Colleges should accommodate all ranges of personal beliefs.
    > Agree with your point.

  5. Frank says:

    I understand and, for the most part, agree with your points. I would like to add that:

    1.) I believe another major problem with college education at the present is that students do not come into college with the appropriately strong foundation of basics that they were “supposed” to get in K-12. I’ve been to college a few times – once at the end of the 60’s when I graduated from High School; and, again about 15 years ago when I went back to finish my degree. The difference in the apparent quality of the education the students arrived with was marked. Many of the students at my second pass were unable to form coherent sentences, didn’t understand rather basic math or science…and seemed to hold the professors at fault for their lack of preparation. This could be anomalous, but I’m told by others it seems to be true generally.

    2.) The most useful course I’ve ever taken in college was symbolic/sentential logic. I believe it goes quite far in giving you tools to learn how to learn and to bridge the gap between math (or math oriented) disciplines and the world we live in. I actually had taken calculus prior to taking logic, but, I didn’t understand the calculus and had just “forced” myself to pass it with a “C.” Later, while I was taking logic, I began to understand the calculus that I had taken earlier. I honestly believe that classical symbolic and sentential logic should be taught in K-12. I think it would make math and science much more meaningful to many of the students, especially now that calculators and computers do most of the “crunching” and that should, if taught in digestible pieces over time, allow the students to see the reasons for and applicability of the math and science presented.

  6. hola says:

    Way off topic, but have you seen the photo of the multiple tornadoes shot in Inola, OK? It looks just like your sky tubes. Amazing.

    1. I hadn’t, but I looked them up, and you’re right. They do look like sky tubes.

  7. Plovdiv says:

    “Special arrangements for test-taking”… does this mean you’re opposed to extra time for disabled students? I’m disabled and need extra time in exams because I simply physically cannot write or type as quickly as other people because of my disability. Is that catering too closely for my needs, something that is beyond the remit of the college?

    1. I’m not talking about disabilities; I’m talking about students who want to take exams when they want, only in multiple choice formats, at hours convenient to them at special test centers, rather than during scheduled class or testing periods. And yes, some colleges actually provide such services.

  8. Plovdiv says:

    Ah, well in that case that is beyond ridiculous. Thank you for answering my question.

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