The TEDxKC video “What Baby George Taught Me About Learning” by Dr. Michael Wesch, was inspiring but seemed a bit too idealistic. At one point he lamented the fact that despite all of his efforts, his students were still most concerned about their grades, rather than learning the material.┬áBut how could that ever not be the case?

If we are totally honest, the majority of students at any college are attending primarily for the job opportunities their degree affords. Certainly “expanding our horizons” and improving our understanding of the world is a great benefit – and I recognize that this was the original aim of tertiary education – but few could afford this experience if it didn’t also provide significant employment benefits. This has never been more true than it is today, when student loan debt is crippling, tuition costs have skyrocketed, and most white-collar jobs absolutely require the once-optional BA.

Doing some back of the envelope calculations, just 30 years ago, a year of tuition at VT cost the equivalent of about 500 hours of minimum wage work. One could pay for the entire year’s tuition with a summer job. Today that figure is closer to 1900, almost a full year of full time work. Couple that with the fact that 30 years ago a BA was mostly optional, while today it is required to manage a Starbucks. Add to this the fact that a degree from a good school like VT can be worth over $500,000 over a 20-year period. Can you really blame students for obsessing over grades?

By the time students reach Dr. Wesch’s class, they must have invested tens of thousands of dollars, likely put themselves deep into debt, and know their grades will literally dictate the rest of their lives. A few bad grades could make the difference between getting into a good grad school with funding, or paying their own way at some R3. It could be the difference between even getting into med school at all, or in getting an internship with their dream employer instead of ending up in a cubicle farm in a job they hate.

Until this changes, students will always prioritize grades above actual learning, especially in an elective subject.

I admire Dr. Wesch’s idealism, and I hope to encourage students to love both the material and the act of learning itself, but we cannot allow ourselves to forget how important grades are to these students. If they are truly concerned about their futures, learning will be the last thing on their minds.