3 Theories of College (That Explain Why It’s Broken)

The New Yorker published an essay from Professor Louis Menand of Harvard, where he outlined the three implicit (and conflicting) theories of college in America.

Theory 1, which Menand labels “meritocratic,” believes that college is means of testing intelligence:

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.

Theory 2 (“democratic”) defines college as a means of cultural and intellectual literacy, which should be provided to all:

College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste. Independence of mind is tolerated in college, and even honored, but students have to master the accepted ways of doing things before they are permitted to deviate. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.

Theory 3 (“vocational”) sees college as a vocational credential, much like an MBA seems to be a necessary credential for management consultants:

Neither Theory 1 nor Theory 2 really explains how the educational system works for these non-liberal-arts students. For them, college is basically a supplier of vocational preparation and a credentialling service. The theory that fits their situation—Theory 3—is that advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.

Theory 4: Toga!

The problem with modern college education is that the three different theories conflict with each other. Theory 1 seeks to rank students by ability and achievement; selectivity and rigor critical. In contrast, Theory 2 would prefer that all Americans attend and complete college, and Theory 3 practitioners may actively suppress differentiation (when I was at HBS, I signed an agreement stating I would *not* reveal my grades to potential employers, the theory being that simply earning a Harvard MBA ought to be enough for them).

Theory 2 views college as an enriching experience; classes should focus on liberal arts content regardless of analytical rigor (Theory 1) or practical application (Theory 3).

Meanwhile, Theory 3’s narrow focus (e.g. a Masters in Web Design) fails to provide either a broad test of intelligence (Theory 1) or enrichment (Theory 2).

Because these theories are incompatible, it is difficult for a single education to serve the needs of all three. Just think of Caltech, Sarah Lawrence, and ITT Technical Institute. All three are leaders in their field, and all three are barely recognizable as members of the same species!

Even where a single institution has the breadth to serve all three, like my alma mater, Stanford University, it’s difficult for a single student to squeeze them all in.

Take my own example. In many ways, I covered all three Theories in my education. I studied engineering (Theory 1/3) and creative writing (Theory 2) at Stanford, then earned my MBA from Harvard Business School (Theory 3). But such examples are rare (And expensive. And not for the faint of heart).

In some ways, single-purpose institutions make things easier. It’s clear why a student would attend Caltech, Sarah Lawrence, or ITT. The wide variety of choices that a Stanford provides is both a blessing and a curse. I can tell you, for example, that achieving a 3.9 GPA is much harder in Stanford’s Engineering department than in the Psychology department (I got an A+ on every psychology class I took!). This means more work for potential employers who need to be well-versed in the quirks and characteristics of many different departments at many different schools.

I’m not sure what the best solution might be. Perhaps there are more efficient ways to deliver on Theories 1, 2, and 3, such that a person who pursues one course could supplement their education with healthy doses of the other two. I can imagine advanced aptitude testing, like a bar exam for other professions to serve the needs of Theory 1, broad cultural literacy programs at the community college or adult education level to serve the needs of Theory 2, and self-contained coursework for specific credentials to serve the needs of Theory 3.

Indeed, the University of Phoenix has already built a multi-billion-dollar empire on meeting the underserved needs of Theory 3. Perhaps there are similarly sized opportunities available to those who develop the Marketing Aptitude Test or the U of P equivalent to the liberal arts!

And were such institutions to spring up, they would free up traditional colleges to focus more fully on either Theory 1 and Theory 2, resulting in better education for all.

4 thoughts on “3 Theories of College (That Explain Why It’s Broken)

  1. Much of the credential function of college is a result of the effective abolition of employer-offered aptitude tests in the early 1970s.


    This decision was interpreted as meaning that aptitude tests of any kind were effectively illegal, since there is no way to insure the races wouldn't get different scores. So, for employers, college effectively became a four-year aptitude test that would survive court challenges.

  2. A few diverse thoughts.

    I don't like that all three seem to be arguments for standardization. The first calls for standardizing of difficulty, no child left behind style. The second calls for standardizing culture in a kind of creepy social control manner. The third treats people like products to be mass produced.

    Once upon a time there was a distinct difference between trade schools and universities. The first taught you how to do your job, the second taught you theory, and philosophy. Now we try to cram them together which I think is a big mistake. Engineers are produced with knowledge of everything except how to actually do their job while the value of academia is diluted.

  3. Foo,

    I can always count on you to provide some interesting insights.

    As always, the principle of unintended consequences shows the perils of government social activism. It's apparent that Duke intended its tests to be discriminatory (since they didn't apply the tests to existing employees), but the result of the ruling went far beyond simply preventing this type of racism.

    Note that Burger's opinion contained this chilling passage:

    "The facts of this case demonstrate the inadequacy of broad and general testing devices, as well as the infirmity of using diplomas or degrees as fixed measures of capability. History is filled with examples of men and women who rendered highly effective performance without the conventional badges of accomplishment in terms of certificates, diplomas, or degrees. Diplomas and tests are useful servants, but Congress has mandated the common sense proposition that they are not to become masters of reality."

    After reading the article, I noted that Ricci v. DeStefano appears to have overturned some of the aspects of Griggs v. Duke.


  4. why theory 1 seeks to rank students by ability and achievement?

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