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College: more than a credential

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Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File

(Read caption) A view of the lawn at the University of Virginia as seen from The Rotunda.

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College is like the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon. It comes alive in a fleeting, magical way for entering freshmen and vanishes into the mists roughly four years later when the caps and gowns are returned and only memories and debt remain.

Oh sure, faculty and staff work at colleges year in and year out. Perennial students can be found there, too, along with buskers, landlords, and shopkeepers. But college is mostly about young people coming of age, grappling with new ideas, learning useful skills, and networking with contemporaries who may always be friends (and may also end up knowing something they can hold over you for the rest of your life).

Colleges are the membrane through which the accumulated knowledge of humanity is transmitted from one generation to the next, along with hacky sack, foosball, and frisbee. The process works best via a professor, a teaching assistant, a set of books, and a series of lab experiments. But some of the transfer inevitably occurs via CliffsNotes, last-minute cramming, and late-night talkathons. When a bachelor’s degree is awarded, the transaction is more or less complete – which is good but may not be enough anymore to make it in the job market.

In a Monitor cover story, Lee Lawrence looks into the worth of a bachelor’s degree. Where once a bachelor’s could open doors, it has become so commonplace that it might not be enough to land a job. On the one hand, graduate-degree holders may have a leg up; on the other hand, vocational skills alone may be a surer way to a paycheck. But while a bachelor’s may have become devalued, it is a minimal requirement in most jobs, a steppingstone to graduate credentials, and crucial for that little matter of civilization.

Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco, in a new book titled “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” points out that students “have always been searching for purpose. They have always been unsure of their gifts and goals, and susceptible to the demands ... of their parents and of the abstraction we call ‘the market.’ ” He cites Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1871 description of a man entering college when everything was “distant, golden, indefinite, and I was sure I was good for almost anything that could be named.” But he soon began to wonder about “all the pains and money” expended on his education.

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