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By Tom Cushing

College: the best seven years of your life?

Uploaded: Feb 29, 2012

Among the various incendiary claims that ignited a particularly conflagratory week on the campaign trail, was one that bears upon post-secondary education in these United States. I'm interested in your thoughts on it, whether based on your personal experiences, or those of others (as in: "I have a friend who's got a rash?").

The thrice-degreed (BA, MBA, JD) Senator Santorum claimed this week that "62% of kids who enter college with a faith commitment leave without it." On its face, that appears to be a rather dire indictment of the university experience – especially among those whose impressions of college come from the line of movies that starts with Animal House (Faber College motto: Knowledge is Good) and runs through the various Van Wilder epics. Placing naturally curious, hormonal youngsters in close proximity without benefit of much supervision seems likely to provoke extra-curriculars that might lead them astray.

While the Senator did not offer source material for his claim, a strikingly similar statistic may be found in a respectable academic journal, to wit: "The assumption that the religious involvement of

young people diminishes when they attend college is of course true: 64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits."

Fortunately for we who finance college educations (if not for the candidate), the next sentence of that article reads as follows: "Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance."

Mr. Santorum further offered the opinion that the likely culprit was "indoctrination by some liberal college professor." I will set aside the educator's fond aspiration that the perspectives s/he purveys occupy some fraction of student consciousness beyond the next exam – or even survive the class bell – leavened as it must be with the oft-demonstrated fact that sometimes, it does neither. I do end my courses by expressing to students the hope that maybe the world looks a little different now, than it did at the outset of our time together. But my stuff is usually pretty vocational, and its persistence will depend on reinforcement by informing business decisions with remembered elements of the curriculum.

I recall that my own undergraduate education taught me how to think about problems in organized, rational ways that have been useful in my life. I trend a bit towards the Keynesian in that regard, as did most of my Profs in the Michigan Econ department, but I've read enough Friedman to appreciate the monetarist perspective. And I learned other process skills in unlikely places, like my Accounting Prof who, in 1972, predicted the eventual demise of General Motors and convinced me of the wisdom in adopting the long view.

Indoctrination, though, goes more to substance than process. It tells you what to believe, not how to decide what to believe. I don't think college does that; I simply do not recall any teacher, at any level, who had that effect.

In terms of values (as the candidate clearly intended), and life philosophy, I believe mine were formed much more by earlier training, and by later experience. Early-on, I was encouraged to "fight fiercely" in general, to listen to my conscience and to revere life. Those values survived my education. And later, life taught me how remarkably fortunate I have been, that I should not take it for granted or assume it arose out of any special merit I might enjoy, and that there's a place for all that Economics I had learned – but it's not every place.

What about you – how did college affect you? Were you directed, left or right, by your learnings there? Were there particular Profs or mentors who changed the course of your life – or how you think about life? Were there times you were punished academically for an alternative view with which the academic authorities disagreed? Any courses, or tributes, or gripes you've been nurturing, and would be willing to share?

BTW, the article referred-to above ought to have relieved the Senator's concerns, as follows: "The assumption that a college education is the reason for such a decline gathers little support. The results remain the same even when we employ multiple regression models to account for other factors that might explain the college-religion relationship (such as age, marriage, drinking habits, and sexual behavior, to name a few). Simply put: Higher education is not the enemy of religiosity."