Trevor Marsden: We’re not asking the right questions

For undergraduates securing their diplomas this week, their four-year journey began with one question: “Why GW?” Answer that application question with gusto, decisiveness and political acumen, and students could follow a graduation path ending in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

But for too many students, that journey also ends with piles of debt. And you can draw that phenomenon back to a question the University is not asking its eager applicants, but should: “Why do you want to attend college?”

That question – basic at its core, but difficult to answer for many – is pertinent both as debt levels rise and as GW tries to raise its stature as an academic institution.

“Why do you want to go to GW?” is a very different question than, “Why do you want to go to college?” The latter one would force students to think more comprehensively about college’s costs and benefits.

And that critical thinking is particularly important as the cost of a degree can create a state of near-indentured servitude for graduates. Horror stories about the multi-decade process of paying off student debt are common, but that has not turned many away.

Even though average debt levels rose to nearly $31,000 last year for GW graduates – nearly $27,000 nationally – students keep arriving in droves for four-year degrees. And last week, the University landed on a New American Foundation study list of private colleges and universities with high net prices for low-income students. Similar stories occur at universities around the country.

If GW asks a question that more directly addresses the costs and benefits of college in general, it will force more students to think twice. And that will only create a stronger University.

The question becomes a sieve for bullshitters, clearly demonstrating to the University which applicants are dedicated to the learning and creation of knowledge, and which ones are simply going to school because it is the supposed next step, the social norm to follow or a proverbial trophy to place on a mantle to please mom and dad.

For most, the increasing interest in college is positive. Education is invaluable. But a four-year degree, especially from a private school in an expensive urban metropolis, is not for everyone.

Academia, after all, is a commitment. If you take a spot on the class roster as a zombie instead of a student, then something is clearly wrong with the way that you view college.

I recall my experience applying to colleges: the applications, the interviews and the essay prompts. My Colorado College application highlighted post-graduate study opportunities, and my University of Colorado at Boulder interview stressed what “CU could do for me.”

The “Why GW” essay question felt more like a sales pitch than a gauge of my interest in higher education. I never had that conversation with an admissions officer. And though I have valued my three years here, the question would have elevated the admissions process.

Admittedly, this issue goes far beyond GW’s reach. The idea that college is simply a “next step” is so ingrained in our society that, in most cases, employment is predicated upon it. We’re told that the main reason that we go to college is to get a job.

It just makes sense: The unemployment rate among college graduates is 3.9 percent, low in comparison to the national rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But are we actually able to do a job better simply because of our expensive certificate? I’m not really sure. I’m left wondering whether the benefits of a degree are enough to justify its steep cost.

Only the students who can answer “Why college?” are the ones who will excel in the classroom.

The writer is a junior majoring in philosophy.

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