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Administrators Weigh In On The Rising Cost And Questionable Benefit Of A College Education

BC Hopes To Produce Well-Rounded Grads

Heights Senior Staff

Published: Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

One of the most hotly debated topics in politics focuses on the worth of the college degree. While a bachelor's degree can open vocational doors, the question remains: does receiving a college degree necessarily mean anyone learned anything?

"This is a big topic, and it's a very popular topic with politics and Boston College faculty," said Patrick Rombalski, vice president of student affairs. "Both sides of the aisle tend to cheapen this argument. They don't really get into its depth."

Social scientists and researchers in higher education continue to churn out studies that put the ambiguous concept of learning at the forefront. These studies range from the academic to the cultural. Rombalski considers Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's book Academically Adrift to be the instigator of higher education's recent questioning. "That book is one of the most popular ones on this topic in years," Rombalski said. "It's gotten a lot of attention."

These two sociologists posed the question as a thesis and used standardized testing as a marker of validity. After an analysis of the results of more than 2,400 undergraduate students at more than 24 institutions, they found that 45 percent of students made no improvement during their first two years of college.

Arum and Roksa's study found its way to Janelle Nanos, BC '02, who used the study as a springboard for a piece in Boston Magazine titled "Is College Over?" which was published last October. Nanos spoke with higher education professionals throughout the United States, including Rombalski, and shed a harsh light on her own experiences at BC by calling the idea of college "a fairytale."

"She does alert the reader to some legitimate concerns that are happening in the academy," Rombalski said. "I think the fairytale is this naive sense that you can just go away to college with the assumptions built into fairytales–a good ending, all good things happen in college, students learn, they come out of it mature adults and responsible citizens. I think she's trying to challenge those assumptions with the reader."

 Nanos' contribution only augments the nation-wide discussion, and the faculty at BC is left to unravel the question. The landscape of college and academia as a whole changes over time, and these changes have altered the perception of what is considered learning, Rombalski said. He cites cost, diversity, and the different levels of faculty as factors that have changed greatly since the boom of collegiate learning.

"There's been a lot of experimentation in higher education through technology and the different types of institutions, everything from community college to private to public to HBCU to land grant," Rombalski said.

Changes in curriculum, such as the addition of new majors and minors as well as more contemporary content, have also changed college campuses.

"The University's vitality in many ways is ensured by an ongoing back-and-forth between the traditional and the innovative," said David Quigley, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in an e-mail. "Universities date back to the medieval era and the disciplines that organize knowledge are legacies, by and large, of the late 19th century. At the same time, these very disciplines are imagined anew by each generation of professors and students. As for new programs like International Studies and Islamic Civilization and Societies, such initiatives illustrate how the academy responds to a changing world and strives to prepare students for the world they'll inherit."

BC champions this liberal arts education, but Rombalski sees learning as a constant process. He uses the term "24/7 student" to describe his beliefs about BC students. "Thirty or 40 years ago, the approach to education was basically what happened in the classroom, and when you left for class and you went out, that wasn't considered really a part of your learning experience," Rombalski said. "Today, given the cost and our responsibility to give back to the community, we consider our University a learning environment whether you're in the classroom or not." Rombalski considers extracurricular activities and peer-to-peer discussion paramount to this model. "The 24/7 mentality really drives home the point that we want students to be learning all the time throughout their time at BC."

Issues pertaining to access, particularly in matters of cost, can interfere with earning a college degree. In her piece, Nanos uses the Thiel Fellowship recipients as an indicator of this growing problem. The Thiel Fellowship, founded by early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, grants student innovators $100,000 to drop out of college and enter the workforce. Thiel makes the argument that the price of college outweighs any possible advantages inherent in a college degree, but those in higher education disagree.

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