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Focusing on Quality and Value of Education in College Choice

In the next few months, high school seniors will make their final decisions on which college to attend. Many will be thinking back to their campus visits a year ago. Which school was it with the cool climbing wall? Best food? Newest dorm? Others will be sitting around the kitchen table with their families talking dollars and cents. Which school has the best aid package? Will it be worth taking out all these loans?

In a new e-book, Is a College Education Still Worth the Price? A Dean's Sobering Perspective, Richard Schwartz, professor of English at the University of Missouri, Columbia, encourages students to look beyond the fancy new fitness facilities and look at what really matters: the quality and value of the education.

When students find the right fit and are engaged, higher education can indeed be worth it, says Schwartz. "There is no question it is valuable," he says. Research shows the investment pays off in higher lifetime earnings. Yet the exploding cost of college and the watered down curricula at many universities means that students who want a solid education have to be aggressive in seeking it out, writes Schwartz.

"Look between the lines," he says. "Look at the ratings, but take that with a grain of salt. Look at the curriculum, where the faculty are trained, and at the library." Do some research, ask deep questions, and seek advice beyond professionals in the college business.

Schwartz maintains there is too much marketing and emphasis on "brand" today in higher education. In many institutions, standards are slipping and money is put into an array of services when the priority should be on instruction, according to Schwartz. Enrollment has grown, but faculty numbers have not risen significantly. At the same time, there has been an increase in the nonteaching academic staff. Universities have become cities that offer services that often duplicate those in the surrounding community, driving up costs, he notes.

The number of hours the average student studies per week is substantially lower than it was 50 years ago, says Schwartz. Why aren't students studying more? "They don't have to. We aren't asking them to do much," he says. Students are keeping journals, rather than writing papers. They are reading fewer books.

The flood of students (not all of whom are passionate about being in college) has given pressure to the lowering of expectations at many schools, Schwartz suggests. "The contemporary diploma seldom carries any guarantees; it is merely a certificate of attendance," he writes.

Still, there is good news in American higher education. "Greatness can still be found there, and opportunity," writes Schwartz. "The individual student, however, must want it enough to seek it out, tenaciously."

Schwartz has worked at the University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin, and Georgetown University and has held positions as associate dean, dean, and interim provost.


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