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Young: College is more than just a numbers game

March 20, 2010

Many people view the undergraduate experience as a linear exercise:
X number of credits equals career readiness.

My college-grad son got exactly what I hoped he would out of his higher education -- meaning it had almost nothing to do with a career.

Oh, sure, I would have been thrilled if after that fireworks-filled graduation night at the base of the University of Texas tower he exchanged his black robe for a job that gratified and enriched him.

But college meant so much more than that for me, and for him. How would his education affect the GDP and our competitiveness with the Chinese? We have yet to see.

In addition to his classes, he was engaged in a whole lot on campus -- indeed, so much that he never had the time or inclination to attend so much as one UT sporting event.

So many people, particularly policymakers, look at college as a linear exercise: X number of credits equals career readiness. A UT task force recently recommended limiting the pursuit of a bachelor's degree to 10 semesters -- five years. Such a bottom-line fixation fails to acknowledge changes of direction in inquiry and interest, not to mention work demands that students face to pay for college.

Therefore, it's encouraging when you see approaches to make the most out of college education, rather than trying to prime the conveyor belt to get students out in the least amount of time.

An example of this at UT is taking place in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement with an exciting initiative called Intellectual Entrepreneurship.

We all know what entrepreneurship is about: profit. This UT program, under the direction of Richard Cherwitz, is about the profit to society in producing citizen-scholars. Basically, it's a host of ways to "demystify education" and get students to branch out from what they're studying to find ways to engage in the community, or across disciplines.

One feature under the program that's getting national attention is UT's Pre-Graduate School Internship. It pairs graduate students with undergraduates, most of whom come from under-represented populations. The objective: to help the undergrads conceptualize and plan for post-graduate degrees. Last school year it involved more than 200 undergraduates.

It is always useful to think of the social ripple effect to come when one person from a family that never knew higher education gets a college degree. Consider the ripples, then, if one of them chooses law school, medical school or other post-graduate pursuits.

But the same kinds of stigma and mystiques that keep some students from going to college apply to grad school, not to mention foreboding finances. That's why such a mentoring arrangement is invaluable.

In contrast to those who want to distill education to test scores or minimizing contact hours, hear the plea of UT sophomore Cameron Ingram, praising the Intellectual Entrepreneurship program in a commentary in the Daily Texan: "With looming budget cuts and tuition hikes, maybe interest should be focused more on making students' dollars go further, and less on turnover."

ToCherwitz's way of thinking, this means showing students how " 'research'(thought and reflection) and 'engagement' (action) do not inherently constitute an either/or."

My son got more than thought and reflection out of his (five) rewarding college years, and far more than the two bachelor's degrees he earned. He got a sense of himself and a thirst for knowledge.

After four years loving Austin as a non-student and thinking about what else he wants to do, he recently was accepted to the UT School of Social Work.Making that leap wasn't too daunting for him, in part because of his influences at home, and in part because of friends already in graduate school. But imagine someone whose parents never graduated from high school and never dreamed of college. Graduate school?

Let's hope no one is rushed out the door at a great school before he or she gets a sense of greatness yet to be achieved.

John Young writes for Cox Newspapers