What are College Students Actually Paying For?


Every semester I speak with prospective and current students who wonder about the cost of college, and I frequently hear questions about why it is necessary to pay thousands of dollars for an education that they can get online or at the library for free. Each time I encounter these questions, legitimate as they are, I feel compelled to revisit the scene in the movie Good Will Hunting wherein the titular character, Will, berates a pompous bar patron for being unoriginal and, even more appalling, spending thousands of dollars on an education he could have just as easily received at his local library. 

This scene speaks to a broader sentiment held by more and more people that a higher education is something better pursued at no cost through a library or the Internet.Movie Will is not wrong. It is obvious which route provides the cheaper education. Seminal and up-to-date literature in almost any subject can now be accessed via libraries — provided they have the right resources — and the Internet. Keeping within the field of higher education, a quick Google search allows me to freely access Aljohani’s (2016) “A Comprehensive Review of the Major Studies and Theoretical Models of Student Retention in Higher Education” published by the Canadian Center of Science and Education, which offers a decent overview of student retention theory over the last several decades. This piece is not unlike what a student would encounter in a college or university classroom. What was not so obvious when I was an undergraduate but is painfully obvious to me now is that people, by and large, will not actually take it upon themselves to further their education after high-school.

There are several reasons for this. One is that when it comes to post-secondary education, people are surprisingly — or unsurprisingly — lazy. I came to understand this through Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” which examines the inner-workings of the human mind. According to Kahneman, humans have two “systems” that mediate both how and what we think. The first system (System 1, as he calls it) is automatic and interprets reality by the law of least effort, which suggests that people mostly take the path of least resistance when drawing conclusions or making judgments. System 1 jumps to conclusions based on familiarity and the ease with which it can access information from memory, and enjoys being unimpeded by facts and values that contradict what it already knows. Unfortunately, this means that System 1 can also be easily primed and manipulated, and can settle on interpretations of reality that are demonstrably untrue. (Do you know anyone who thinks that we only use 10 percent of our brains, or that cracking your knuckles increases the likelihood that you will develop arthritis? Neither of those propositions are true, but they continue to appeal to people’s System 1 (Feldman, 2017).)

Unlike System 1, the second system (System 2) is characterized by effortful thinking and is activated whenever System 1 encounters inconsistencies or is sufficiently challenged. For example, a student who is given an assignment on a topic for which she has no prior knowledge will experience System 2 activating after System 1 fails to inform her on how best to complete the assignment. She will likely learn new information and processes for completing the assignment, and in so doing will add cognitive tools that were previously unavailable to System 1. She will also be motivated by her grade to activate System 2 when System 1 fails to complete the assignment. By activating System 2 in this case, she has grown as a learner and is better prepared for assignments like this in the future. Not to mention, she will likely receive better grades on those assignments. It is important to note that System 2 is lazy and rarely feels compelled to check that the judgements and conclusions generated by System 1 are accurate. This is likely because most of the time they are, and System 2 cannot really be bothered for the few times that they are not; not unless it is amply motivated to do so, as with the student in the example.

The student example highlights the context in which a higher education is acquired. Individuals enter an educational setting hoping to learn new material and are properly motivated to activate System 2. What Movie Will fails to consider is that most people outside of an educational institution are not motivated to challenge System 2 frequently enough and with demanding enough material to rival a college or university education. It is true that individuals do not need college to learn new things, but they most often limit their learning to job training or specific areas of interest. This explains how a person can have doctorate-level expertise in plumbing or carpentry, or on the Kennedy assassination or chemtrails but be otherwise uneducated. Likewise, System 2 induces what Kahneman (2011) refers to as cognitive strain, a state of mind that is less comfortable and which people typically avoid if they can.

Without the network of accountability provided by an institution of higher learning — professors, advisors, counselors, mentors, etc. — individuals are rarely motivated enough on their own to endure as much cognitive strain as would be necessary to acquire a well-balanced higher education. To the contrary, most individuals are perfectly content to let System 1 guide them through life, informing their judgments and decisions in ways that promote their comfort rather than obstruct it.

To be clear, this is not a denunciation of those who choose not to pursue a college degree. As I said before, Movie Will is correct in saying that college is not required to get a good post-secondary education. But given what we know about human psychology, and given results from hundreds of opinion polls over the years showing stark differences in values between the college-educated and the non, it is not controversial, or even cynical, to suggest that most people will not seek a well-rounded post-secondary education on their own.

This brings us back to the question about why we pay thousands of dollars to learn the stuff that we can access for free on the Internet. The answer is simple: It is not about the content. It is about accountability; i.e. the network of people who, despite a student’s inclination to retreat from cognitive strain, push them to read, push them to study and practice the material, push them to write long and critical papers, push them to reflect on what they are covering in class, and penalize them for not achieving a standard level of comprehension. An institution of higher learning forces people to confront the biases and pitfalls of System 1-thinking so that they are not as easily manipulated when social and political landscapes become volatile. Though it might seem to students that they are paying for only course content when they see the cost of tuition, they are actually paying for the web of people and resources that will hold them to account for the next however-many-years knowing that they likely would not do it themselves. This, to me, is worth the price tag of a college education.

James Wicks is a higher education professional committed to student success, administrative excellence, leadership effectiveness, and innovation in higher education policy and practice. He is currently an academic advisor for the College of Basic and Applied Sciences at Middle Tennessee State University and a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education Administration program at Texas Tech University.

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