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What students should really look for in a college education

As tuition increases, more and more economists and public figures are calling for a more pragmatic approach to what it should mean to get a college degree. The president of the Association of American Universities, Hunter Rawlings, disagrees.

"Most everyone now evaluates college in purely economic terms, thus reducing it to a commodity like a car or a house," Rawlings, who is also the former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa, wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post on June 9.

But according to Rawlings, such assumptions "begin with a false assumption."

"Unlike a car, college requires the 'buyer' to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum," he argued. "I know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges."

There are simply too many moving parts for a college education to be seen as a typical investment, Rawlings argued, and reducing it to such does no one — students especially — any favors. Looking at education in purely consumerist terms has led college administrators to "cater to student demands for trigger warnings, 'safe rooms' and canceled commencement speakers."

"Governors and legislators, as well as the media, treat colleges as purveyors of goods, students as consumers and degrees as products. Students get the message," he wrote. If the only point is to provide a product "worth" the money, Rawlings continued, quality education takes a back seat to consumer demands.

Rawlings' essay for The Washington Post isn't the first time someone has spoken out against the "commoditization" of higher learning amidst rising tuition costs.

Last year, for example, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, writing on The Washington Post's Wonkblog, expressed similar views to Rawlings.

"Of course, getting a job is critical, especially in the era of five-figure student loan debt," Douglas-Gabriel argued, concluding, however, that focusing only on job potential is "increasingly overshadowing the point of an education beyond being a direct pipeline to a job."

Liberal arts degrees are often singled out because of their theoretical low earning potential, but as Douglas-Gabriel points out there is reason to believe that's not necessarily true.

"It's true that liberal arts majors don't always have an easy career path, but researchers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that over time they are employed at the same rates and can earn similar salaries as people with professional degrees," Douglas-Gabriel wrote.

At the time, Douglas-Gabriel was also concerned that the strict cost/benefit view of college has led to "the kind of thinking that has fueled enrollment at for-profit colleges, places that often promise a direct route from the classroom to the workplace." And as The Atlantic's Alia Wong reported last February, the for-profit college industry doesn't exactly have a glowing reputation right now.

So how should students view college?

While, clearly, not everyone agrees on a neat and tidy answer, an essay published last April by the Huffington Post seeks to find a delicate balance between both education for the sake of education, and college as a training ground for careers.

"Liberal arts education is great general preparation for life, but even liberal arts grads should be employable," Tom Vander Ark argued in the essay. "That requires a resume of success in several work settings demonstrating punctuality, work ethic, the ability to work on a team, and production of quality work product."

The solution, then, according to Vander Ark, is for institutions of education to place a priority on providing their students with real-world work experience to accentuate the more abstract ideas they're learning in the classroom.

"High school and college internships and jobs are critical to boosting employability," he concluded.

JJ Feinauer is a writer for Deseret News National. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: jjfeinauer.