I am in awe of the romanticization of higher education in America, mainly by its alumni who are probably rationalizing an extraordinary sunk cost of money and time but also from the media (especially those pesky soft focus, all-anecdotes higher ed stories put out monthly by the New York Times which pander to its well-to-do readers with teenage sons and daughters). We hear that going to a fine college in America represents the opportunity for unblemished intellectual pursuit. The one opportunity to pursue the life of the mind with no other distractions or obligations!
Or: The late night dorm conversations about the meaning of life! This — late night dorm conversations — may be the most overrated thing ever. Slightly inebriated 18, 19, 20, or 21 year-olds (that includes me!) musing on the Big Questions with no preparation or structure is an absolute train-wreck. Yet these situations continue to get mythologized as formative intellectual or social moments that are not to be missed.
Based on my own experiences and those of my friends (who attend every college you’ve heard of and many good colleges you likely haven’t heard of), I think people vastly overstate the existence of an unadulterated intellectual life for undergraduates in the academy. Look to the plagues of multiculturalism and political correctness (anti-intellectual currents if there ever were ones) or simply the fact that drinking / drugs, obsession with grades, and power plays in pursuit of golden internships are the primary points of interest for most 20 year-olds at even the best institutions.
This doesn’t mean college is worthless. In fact, I think college offers many benefits to undergrads, such as the networking opportunities or just the fun factor of four years of summer camp. But a truly enriching intellectual experience of the sort that’s often "remembered" by alumni or celebrated by the media — those early moments where a worldview started to form, a love for books that was cultivated — this seems less likely, unless you’re a student at Reed, University of Chicago, Swarthmore, and perhaps a couple other places whose cultures do seem to take the life of the mind seriously. In general, I think a minority of students at good colleges leave infected with a love for ideas and a majority leave with knowledge that they will probably have to un-learn later in life.
I’d rather have our colleges either be more explicitly vocational — ie, be in the business of transferring practical career skills and not talk themselves silly with phrases like "teaching our students how to think" — or actually cut the bullshit / distractions and emphasize liberal arts for liberal arts’ sake alone. Floating somewhere in the middle, as most liberal arts schools do now, appeals on the surface for those like me who don’t want the suffocating seriousness of a University of Chicago nor the mechanics skills of a vocational institute, but ultimately the ever-elusive ‘happy medium" as currently practiced doesn’t offer enough of either to seem worthwhile.