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By Siddharth Gundapaneni

Students are increasingly scrutinizing their academic institutions, often saying that their college professors fail to teach the subject adequately. When asking a college graduate about their knowledge of a subject they took a class in, it’s typically below what one would expect of someone with such a degree. As a justification, students (myself included) often say that professors only “teach to the test,” meaning that professors don’t try to teach a subject holistically, rather teaching the material the department agreed they would test.

What do students really expect from a college education?

Do professors deserve such criticism, or are they simply providing a service in the way it’s desired? An economic analysis of the subject may be able to bring about some answers.

If most students want to go to college in order to be as learned as they could be, and professors were failing to foster such outcomes, perhaps this criticism would be warranted. That said, I do not believe that education is the reason people go to college, counterintuitive as that may sound. 

The foremost requisite for many jobs, as much of today’s youth sees it, is not immense knowledge of a relevant subject, but rather a piece of paper that says you hold a given degree. As a result, students attending college don’t necessarily seek to learn as much as they could during the span of their degree. The key is to memorize the bare minimum needed to do well enough in classes. Students expect their degree to be a means of increased-quality job opportunities, not a ground for learning. 

This can be observed most clearly at universities that use the practice of grade inflation, which includes the vast majority of America’s top ranking institutions. At Yale University, 62% of faculty believe it’s much too easy to get an A, and another 30% said only a moderate level of grade inflation exists (only 2% of faculty denied the presence of grade inflation). Faculty members have the most control over what grade a student receives, yet most do not agree with the grading system in place. This indicates that there is likely influence in grading from university administrators. 

The reason for this is as follows: Wealthy families pay well over one hundred grand per student enrolled at a university like Yale. Oftentimes these families have attended the University for generations, and legacy helped their children get in. Many of these families are also generous alumni donors of the University. As a result, these families have high expectations for their children. Say the child’s grades begin to slip, the family may grow frustrated at the University to which they’ve donated for decades. In part, this is why we see significant grade inflation at these top institutions with very large numbers of legacy admits and endowments. 

Are people not learning at all then?

Due to the lack of a proper education in colleges, people are taking the time to improve their human capital through external resources. A prime example of this is the accelerating use of alternatives such as Coursera. From just the first financial quarter of 2021 to the fourth alone, Coursera gained a whopping ten million registered users. From the fourth quarter of 2021 to March 2022, they’ve gained another ten million users, clocking in at 102 million total registered users

The increasing number of people that are teaching themselves to code represent a similar trend. The HackerRank’s 2020 Developer Skills Report found that 71% of Gen Z learned new coding skills from YouTube. Furthermore, Gen Z coders were significantly less likely to have learned coding skills from books or outdated University courses, compared to preceding generations. 

Understanding this phenomenon—that a college degree doesn’t necessarily indicate intelligence—innovative companies like Apple, Google, and IBM have altered their pool of recruits. They’ve realized that an increasing number of motivated workers have not taken a traditional college route in their pursuit of knowledge, and instead have taught themselves valuable job skills. 

I believe that we will continue to observe this trend. The value of a college degree isn’t necessarily depleting, but rather has a different use. We can already see that there are more college graduates than there are jobs requiring college degrees. It’s only a matter of time before prospective college students begin to realize that a college degree no longer is a job guarantee. If this understanding becomes more widespread, and people desire/demand a real education from their universities, then I believe the service that professors provide will adjust accordingly. 

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