The college experience, how bad is it?

I saw this thread on Reddit What do you think the hardest major is?

A few observations:

1. I think this calls into question the popular notion that college is dumbed-down or coddling students, contrary to Jonathan Haidt, Bari Weiss and others that college is like daycare. I am pretty sure organic chemistry is harder than daycare, but don’t take my word for it. These pundits have this false conceptualization of college that there isn’t any real learning going on, and it’s just a giant group therapy session. Headlines about protests, safe spaces, and trigger warnings get tons of media coverage, but what is overlooked is how uncommon this is and that otherwise students spend considerable time and effort on difficult subjects. Student walkouts get a lot of media coverage, especially on Twitter, but students spending hours a week on difficult problems sets or writing papers isn’t newsworthy, which is what college mostly is.

For every protest there are 364 days of the year in which students are not protesting, and we’re talking maybe only a handful of colleges and notable incidents (Evergreen, Middlebury, Oberlin) out over 3,500 degree-granting institutions in the US. The media is always exaggerating and overgeneralizing, no matter what it is, and both sides are guilty of it.

That’s not tot say there are not problems with higher ed. Incidents like the 2019 Oberlin protest of Gibson’s Bakery are indefensible, but thankfully infrequent. A case can be made that there is more infantilism in college today than generations ago, but I don’t think this necessarily generalizes to all colleges all the time.

Same for the epidemic of college professors being fired or reprimanded for speech. It’s a problem, yes, but one must keep in perspective that there are thousands of professors across thousands of colleges. There are 135,097 college professors currently employed in the United States. So it’s not that common of an occurrence, yet when it happens it gets tons of coverage on social media and blogs. But people of all professions get fired for stupid reasons, not just educators. No one cares that much about cooks, doctors, accountants, salespeople, or lawyers being fired for stupid reasons. I think it’s because it’s framed as a free speech issue, but in the end it’s still a job, and jobs tend to suck and workers are disposable. I think the only jobs in which there is guaranteed long-term employment are some union jobs, tenured professors, and federally appointed judges..in other words, not many.

I think professors have two advantages over other professions, which can explain why such stories go viral. First, professors have access to a large social network of other academics, such as on Twitter and on podcasts. Professors also have more access to the media. No such network exists for other jobs, afik. A lot of high-paying employers have NDAs and other confidentiality clauses so you cannot go online about your grievances. But also professors may have superior verbal skills, which helps when trying to communicate with journalists who may also have high verbal-IQs.

2. Everything keeps getting harder. Contrary to coddling, the college experience can still be difficult and impersonal. Whether it’s GPAs, exams, getting into a good grad school, or GRE scores, America’s post-2008 hyper-meritocracy has made everything more competitive and difficult than ever before. It’s not like the number of slots for top schools and top jobs has kept up with population growth, including foreign demand. The pool of competitors is bigger, more diverse, and fiercer than ever before, and also includes talented foreign students also completing for these limited slots. By comparison, boomers, gen-x not only probably had easier courses, but much less competition for undergrad, graduate school, and the job market. You got teens learning calculus and uploading code repositories to GitHub and placing well in math competitions: that’s your competition.

50+ years ago GitHub didn’t exist, AP courses were not that common [AP exams were first administered in 1954, and as of 2019 more than 1.2 million US high school students have taken at least one AP exam, a 57% increase over the past decade], math competitions were not that big of a deal (except the Putnam, but that is limited to college students), and it was uncommon for high schoolers to take calculus. From Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, “By age 17, a full quarter are taking calculus, a class basically unheard of for high school students 50 years ago.”

For students seeking to apply to competitive colleges, the percentage is much higher.

It’s like people say they want a meritocracy as opposed to an aristocracy or nobility, yet the nobility sure seems easier it would seem, because the need to have to always compete is absent. The benefit of the meritocracy though is society gets better employees, and more economic growth, and more innovation (compare the UK to the US to get an idea of how much the US has pulled ahead thanks in large part to its meritocracy). My opinion is that it’s rational for students to work and compete so hard, because wages have gone up so much over the past 15 years or so, especially since 2015. Even adjusted for student loan debt and inflation, college-educated boomers and gen-x had lower wages compared to college-educated gen-z.

Even technological changes can make coursework harder. In the 60s, before the advent of LaTeX, word processing, and inexpensive personal computers and the world wide web, assignments had to be small or simple enough to be hand-written or typed and researched at a library within a reasonable timeframe. I have observed this too in research papers: econ and math papers written in the 50s and 60s are much shorter and have far fewer formulas compared to today, and tend to be conceptually much easier. It’s like you’d find a 13 page typewritten paper from 1954 about ;generating functions of Legendre polynomials’, which is not that advanced of a concept but back then it merited publication.

Overall, I think reading actual college student’s experiences possibly provides a more accurate or realistic depiction of what college is really like instead of through the filter and selective memories of the media and pundits.

1 comment

  1. It’s also much harder to make a real difference in any endeavor now, making every field more winner take all.

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