Joe Nocera's recent op-ed piece in the NYT about the college rankings racket exposes a largely unexamined fault line running through contemporary discussions about the many problems facing higher ed and the many problems endemic to academia: credentialing vs. learning.
Students such as the embittered young woman who was "only" able to attend a state school, or the bright senior intent on "marketing herself" so that she can get into an elite private institution reflect a harsh reality of higher ed: a college degree is a necessary credential for greater lifelong earning power and, one hopes, greater economic freedom. This may be particularly true for young women, as this article points out. And the Great Recession has raised the spectre of our nation's newest graduates living in their parents' basements, as part of some extended pupal stage. Rankings, whether from U.S. News & World Report or Washington Monthly, reinforce this idea, as the rankings implicitly turn an individualized four-year experience into an inherent value of the degree itself. A credential from Harvard is "worth" more--in the marketplace--than a credential from Wichita State. The credential mind-set is behind the drive to monetize on-line courses and increase access to distance-learning and extension schools at elite institutions: students who want a credential for the job market can get one, often at the cost of an actual education.
As Nocera points out at the end, there are far more important factors than what school one attended that determine the kind of education one might receive. One of those factors is face-to-face interaction with high-quality professional educators, something a lot of companies and institutions are trying to reduce (faculty are expensive--especially those health insurance premiums--and our work can't be easily scaled up or routinized).
Another is what the student brings to her college experience. A willingness to take risks, to work at the edge of one's intellectual comfort zone, and to fail makes learning more possible and likely. In addition, the lessons of a liberal arts education will stand one in better stead in the long term, as the value of a credential in the marketplace is unstable. Unfortunately, the skills required to get into an elite school are, often, incompatible with intellectual risk-taking and willingness to fail. All too often, students arrive at college and discover that the character traits that have gotten them to college are not necessarily the ones they should continue cultivating. And for the many students who are incurring significant debt to get their credential/education, the cost of taking risks (and perhaps failing) is terribly high.