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Professor laments that students taking on debt to go to college worry too much about jobs

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Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, has found the biggest problem with higher education today. He recently wrote in the New York Times that students just don't revere professors the way they used to.

One-quarter of college seniors say they haven't talked to professors in the current academic year. At the UCLA English department, when Bauerlein visited in February, "only one in eight doors was open, and barely a half dozen of the department’s 1,400 majors waited for a chance to speak." In 1967, more college freshman in UCLA's annual national survey said it was important to "develop a meaningful philosophy of life" rather than be "well-off financially"; that's no longer true.

Bauerlein uses these statistics to mourn the loss of the rapt undergraduates of yesteryear and argue that today's students don't understand how valuable their professors are.

The truth is that if there ever was a utopian past when college was solely about learning, it was a very long time ago. The same survey Bauerlein cites to indict today's students shows that getting a good job has been a prime reason for going to college for more than 40 years.

Making money, on the other hand, really is more important to students than it used to be. That's not because students are lazy or greedy. It's because they're rational.

Adults have always complained about college students

"[Some students] seem alert, alive, responsible," Norman Cousins, the editor of the Saturday Review, once wrote. "But the melancholy fact is that they tend to be few in number … and the drop to the others is almost precipitous. Most … have a mechanistic view of college … Grades … lead to good jobs."

That was in 1960. Since then, higher education really has changed — it's become much more democratized and diverse. But the "mechanistic view of college" is one thing that hasn't.

The Higher Education Research Institute's annual freshman survey asks students about their big-picture goals. And, as Bauerlein writes, "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" has moved much further down the list:

But that's a question about students' entire lives, not just college. Starting in 1971, the survey asked a much more relevant question: why are you going to college?

The answer, it turns out, is pretty much the same as it is today. In 1971, the freshmen who say they want a good job outnumber the freshmen who say they want an education. (This question isn't zero-sum — it was OK to say that both were important factors.) And that's still the case:

What about the desire to "make more money"? Doesn't that mean that today's college students are soulless, money-grubbing automatons?

Probably not. In 1971, earning more money was a concern for only a minority of students. But that didn't last long — by 1985, according to the UCLA data, two-thirds of college students thought earning more money was a very important reason to go to college.

That's not a coincidence, or a reflection of the "greed is good" 1980s. It's because during that 15-year period, workers with a bachelor's degree saw their earnings pull away from everyone else as high school graduates' earnings began to fall:

Pew Research Center

Making more money wasn't a "very important" reason to go to college in 1971, because relatively speaking, college graduates didn't make that much more money than people who didn't go to college. It's much more important in 2013, because a bachelor's degree is worth nearly twice as much as a high school diploma.

College might be a more pleasant place for professors to work if students were focused solely on learning. But that hasn't been the case for generations, if it was ever true at all. The good news is that students don't see college as being just about jobs, either. It's about both a good education while you're there and a good job afterward — and that's been true for a long time.