The Value of Higher Education II

Dean Esmay has revised and extended his remarks on the inadequacies of the American undergraduate system and he calls my response to his post of yesterday “dismissive.”

As I noted in his comments, I’m not being dismissive, simply noting that Dean isn’t the target audience of traditional undergraduate programs. Anything aimed at 18-year-olds is going to be irritating to a 37-year-old.

In my experience, the large, lecture-style classes that demand regurgitation of information that Dean complains of are only in the largest universities and mainly in introductory courses. When I was teaching college, I taught all the upper level classes as graduate-style seminars, using roundtable discussion format. Indeed, the only thing I taught using a pure lecture format was the introductory American Government course.

A bright person in his mid-30s trying to return to school for a degree would likely be far better off at a smaller school, a liberal arts college, or a school that mainly offers night and weekend courses because it’s geared to “non-traditional” students.

Dean asserts that,

While America houses some of the best grad schools and research universities in the world, America’s undergrad degrees are increasingly a laughingstock.

Considering that we have people from all over the world coming to get degrees even from the least prestigious American universities, I’m dubious of that assertion. While I agree with Dean that a lot of students who go to college don’t have any business there and that the pressure to graduate them has devalued the process somewhat, our universities are still excellent in any apples-to-apples comparison. Indeed, the same professors that teach our graduate courses teach undergraduate courses.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rosemary the Queen of All Evil says:

    I’m not being dismissive, simply noting that Dean isn’t the target audience of traditional undergraduate programs. Anything aimed at 18-year-olds is going to be irritating to a 37-year-old.

    Dean is, in fact, the main target. He is going to a university that specializes in non-traditional students. You can’t even get into this school if you aren’t over 25. It is designed for returning adults…

  2. James Joyner says:

    Ah. He doesn’t note that in either of the posts.

    Then he’s making an argument about the way a specific school is being run and his feelings about it. His experience isn’t that generalizable to traditional programs.

  3. Steven says:

    Indeed, without knowing the school, I would note that it has been my experience that schools that are geared towards non-traditional students only tend to be less rigorous, tend not to have academically-oriented faculties, and are often degree-mills. This is not necessarily true in all case, but I have seen plenty of such schools and they hardly qualify as the cream of the crop, nor as the best place to have a fulfilling educational experience.

  4. Dale says:

    I started at the University of Minnesota as a 26 year old seven year Navy Veteran. I did not fit in at all and didn’t care. There were classes with over 300 students (intro courses as mentioned above). As an undergraduate at the U you were just a number and the faculty would have prefered that you just evaporated. You weren’t considered a real human being until you were in graduate school. For me, that was just fine.

    Of course I wasn’t there to get and education. I was there to get an engineering degree so I could get a decent and interesting job. The technical courses were great and I learned a lot. The non-technical courses were something to raise my GPA and were tolerated.

    Once I realized that the non-technical faculty were not really interested in me or my learning but rather hearing their pet ideas parroted back I was happy to play their game. I got what I wanted and was glad to leave.

  5. Rosemary the Queen of All Evil says:

    I have remained neutral because I went to a university and majored in Biology & Chemistry. I will say that I found having to take *required for graduation* L.A. courses felt like a huge waste of my time, except history because I loved that.

  6. John A. Kalb says:


    The issue with undergrad degrees is that everyone in this country has ’em. Something like 60% of Americans go to college. I don’t think any other country is above 40%. And people mostly come here to study because it puts them in on the ground floor in America, not because our universities are any better or worse than those anywhere else.

    As for large, lecture style classes, so far as I could tell at my relatively small, supposedly prestigious college, anything even remotely resembling an introductory science course was like that because they wanted to weed out all but the most dedicated pre-meds, and because that’s how you have to teach introductory-level science courses.

    As for regurgitation of opinions, that was mostly depending on the prof. Some profs like that, others don’t.

    Professors did generally try to be responsive to complaints that their courses were too lecture-based. I remember one very traditional European straight-lecturer in the history department specifically. I took two courses with her, one with about 20 students and another with 90. In the first course, there was absolutely no discussion whatsoever, but two years later, in the big class, she had evidently gotten bad feedback from some students, so she decided to integrate “disussion periods” into her class, where once a week, she’d try to hold a “discussion” between 90 students. This didn’t work terribly well, but it was somewhat comical watching the poor professor trying to manage the whole thing.