Why People Go To College:
1) Instrumentalism: The research shows overwhelmingly that this is the main reason why. The most common reason kids go to school now is "to get a job," i.e., the labor market has evolved in such a way that, in general, you must have a BA/BS to get a middle-class, professional job. There's a lot of history, policy, and development of global capitalism behind this shift, but I won't bore you with all that. The difficulty here is that governmental policy and higher education administration has not only capitulated to the market model, but is striving to reorganize higher education into a glorified job training program, complete with de-professionalized teachers who "deliver" information via standardized curricula that are designed and mass-produced. So you get a double whammy: students who see education as a means to an economic end, and a compliant administration/state government that accedes to market values such as standardization, rationilzation, massification, etc.
2) Socratic: To learn/explore the world. I have a handful of students who feel this way in every class, but they are a definite minority, sometimes absent from the room (or at least afraid to say who they are). The research on college undergrads show that this reason for going to college has been steadily declining in numbers since the 1970s. For the Instrumentalists, the Socratic folk (and those professors who are also in this camp) are "unrealistic," "idealistic," "dinosaurs," "out of touch," "nerds," etc. These students can still find their niche on most campuses, and if they are willing to look for it, they will find a lot of fulfillment in their learning. These people are best served by liberal arts college ($$$$$) and research universities, where the environments are still run as if universities are producers of knowledge rather than producers of workers.
3) Oprah's Own: To find themselves, figure out what they really want. I have been teaching university for 17 years and I have NEVER heard a student say this. They could have been lying, of course; but you'd think I'd hear this at least sometimes if it were in the mix. I think this is a Baby Boomer fantasy that really has nothing to do with what drives kids to school these days; it really derives from a particular time and place in American history and assumes an amount of leisure and financial freedom that simply doesn't exist anymore. In fact, when I went to college in 1988, none of my friends were talking about this either. Now you may argue that it is an inevitable EFFECT of going to college, but not the motivation for going.
Is It Worth It?
Really, the answer to this question depends on your values and what you want. There are many things to consider.
• In general (there are exceptions, but fewer and fewer), to be in the professional-managerial (upper middle) class, you must have a BA/BS. There are also lower-middle (e.g., teachers) and working class (e.g., law enforcement) that are now also requiring college educations for employment. Statistically, life outcomes across the board (health, income, home-ownership, happiness, etc.) are higher with a college degree (minimum of Bachelors; Associates do not show the same dramatic increase in life outcomes).
• Public higher education has been dramatically defunded since the anti-tax revolution of the late 1970s. For example, the CSU system was free when I was born; today, my students pay roughly 50% of the cost of their education; in the CSU, in adjusted dollars, in 1961 when the system was created, the state spent nearly 11K per student per year, whereas today it pays just over 3500 per student per year. This means that a massive proportion of education expenses have been displaced onto students, who (as I"m sure you know) leave college with huge student loan debts, which more or less financially handicap them for life.
• The defunding has indeed changed the structure of the professoriate, so that in mid-tier public universities, upwards of 65% of courses are taught by itinerate teachers working multiple campuses with low pay and no say in their working conditions or the curriculum of the departments they teach in. There have definitely been impacts on students, but as someone who was both a graduate instructor and an adjunct before getting (miraculously) a tenure track job, I can say that the majority of those teachers are doing so because they are dedicated teachers. Some of the best teachers you have may be among graduate students/Ph.D. candidates and/or adjuncts/temp teachers. The labor ethics of the issue are connected to but different from the classroom impact. Unfortunately, because the quality of teaching remains relatively high, this gives administrators ammo to "prove" that it's okay to eliminate full-time faculty. I could go on for hours about this difficult and frustrating topic.
• Public Research Universities are often the largest and easiest to get lost in; but they are also often the most vibrant places to learn. They can be incredibly expensive (see: the UC system).
• The workhorses of the public system are the middle-tier "teaching" universities. They have many problems. On one hand, the promise to be financially accessible to students whose families may be struggling financially, or for people who are the first in their family to go to college. But they tend to have the lowest budgets (even lower than community colleges, usually), the most overworked professors, and the culture on campus tends to be the most intensely "instrumental." The culture of the students tends to be "quickest way out" and "least work possible", and the overworked professors are often doing everythign possible to keep their workload manageable (when I teach well, with pedagogically sound and committed methods, I work about 60 hours a week with my four course load). In my experience, after teaching at two such universities, I come out conflicted: on one hand, I am dedicated to the social justice mission of such institutions; on the other hand, at least in California, it is the lowest quality public higher education available in the state.
• Private liberal arts (4 year) colleges, in my experience, are the best learning environments. They are still dominated by instrumental students and administrations, but they fight to maintain the learning enviornment of a "socratic" motivation. My one year teaching at a Jesuit college was the happiest in my career. It was EXACTLY what I thought being a college professor would be. I had relationships with students. Even my freshmen were excited to be there. I had support to research, allowing me to keep up in my fields and stay excited about knowledge and learning; and my teaching load was light enough that I could really really teach creatively and effectively. Unfortunately, this is the most expensive option, stunningly so. Many places have rigorous financial aid packages based on incomes, etc., so I wouldn't dismiss them out of hand; and the catholic colleges are often excellent and liberal and significantly cheaper. Steer clear of the Little Ivies (e.g., Williams or Brynn Mahr) unless you're a genius, rich, and ready for a brutally competitive environment.
• Avoid for-profit school at all costs (e.g., Phoenix, DeVry, the Arts-Institutes, etc.). They are completely exploitive and are not worth it at all. They are driven by the profit motive in ways that extorts money from students. When I taught at a for-profit Art Institute of California, my students were moved through courses whether they could do the work or not; students were accepted who had no academic abilities for the general education core and/or no artistic talent; and they left their bachelor's degree with more debt than I had after four degrees.
If you choose the school that is right for you, I think higher ed remains "worth it" for both instrumental and socratic motivations. But you have to go in with the eyes open and make a conscious choice. One thing I would say, as someone who wrangles special snowflakes all day long, if your granddaughter is not committed to doing the work for a degree, it is simply too expensive. In other words, if she needs to "find herself," or if she doesn't know what she wants, then she should wait. JMO.