About a month ago, I came across a pair of letters online. The first, simply signed “Alumnus,” is an angry retort to his alma mater’s request for a donation. He is irritated that his degrees and the time and money spent on them have left him $40,000 in debt and unemployed for two years-plus after graduation. The second, signed “A Dedicated Professor,” is an attempt to take Alumnus to task for his lack of understanding about the significance of a true education—something he accuses Alumnus of lacking despite his earned degrees. According to Dedicated Professor, an education is not about economic potential, but about far loftier concerns of intellectual edification and opening the human mind.
Though seemingly at odds, the two complaints complement each other, for each proceeds from the way our culture views a college education—a way that is no longer tenable. College has both an internal heritage of intellectual edification and an external reputation for upward economic mobility. Dedicated Professor, however, repeatedly indicates that these two goals can often be at odds, contrasting “superficial gains” with “the meaning of being human” and disconnecting “success” from material production. The consequence of this tension is that the more we perceive college as the only appropriate one-size-fits-all destination for every American, the more colleges have to try to pursue both ideals, and the less they succeed at either. This is borne out by the fact that Alumnus now recognizes the blatant falsehood of promises of upward mobility and Dedicated Professor recognizes the severe disconnect between the achievement of a degree and the kind of education he extols.
It is hard not to sympathize with Alumnus. Though much of Dedicated Professor’s critique is, strictly speaking, correct, it is the kind of critique one invariably receives after graduation rather than before enrollment. Alumnus is justifiably angry because he was sold a bill of goods. The glowing descriptions of education offered by Dedicated Professor are not how college was marketed to the millions of young graduates confused about why they cannot find a job. Parents were never urged to spend $150,000 to send their child to a five-year “dialogue between teacher and students, student and student, academy and the world.” Poor and disadvantaged students striving to become more successful than their parents were never told it is smart to take on a massive debt they may never be able to discharge for the sake of “looking beyond the superficial gains of power and influence to see consequences and effects on the meaning of being human.”
Bait And Switch Higher Education
I do not contrast the severe costs with Dedicated Professor’s flowery prose to dismiss the value of college (although I can understand why his reply sounds pompous to many.) I make the contrasts in order to frame the issue properly. An education of the kind Dedicated Professor describes is something priceless—something of immense human value that cannot be measured in mere monetary terms. It is precious in the way the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel are precious, not in the way that dollars are precious. Although one can legitimately question whether many universities actually offer something of such quality, it is not a bad way to describe the ideal of an education, except for one glaring problem: American society in general, and the university industry in particular, has spent a great deal of effort convincing the nation that everybody should go to college because it’s the only way to succeed in all areas of life—including economically.
Parents and politicians have told us time and time again that college is the only way to make a living without resorting to the alleged horror of “menial” labor. Universities, in turn, trumpet career and earning potential in their advertisements, extol the lofty social heights their students will climb, maintain career centers, and distribute lists of jobs you can get with an English degree that often look suspiciously similar to lists of jobs you can get without an English degree. If Dedicated Professor is correct and Alumnus is confused about the true nature of education, it is only because the merchants of education have rigorously deceived him on the subject.
Although I must step into the realm of speculation here, I suspect that, rather than denying this fact, many academics like Dedicated Professor are irritated by it. Colleges and universities have been forced to play these two different roles at the same time to their own detriment. This can be seen in many of the unfortunate realities of academic culture—anything from students who by-and-large do not care about the material to the glut of economically irrelevant degrees that has resulted in the poorly paid and treated adjunct class doing most undergraduate teaching. Even grade inflation can be traced back to this situation. Graduation rates are very important at universities, not to ensure that all their students are well educated, but because graduation is essentially permission for their students to move on with their lives. It would be ridiculous to keep somebody away from earning a living wage simply because they couldn’t be bothered to read the assigned Jane Austen novels. Nevertheless, it is equally ridiculous to certify with a diploma that a person who couldn’t be bothered to read the assigned novels has an intellectual foundation. The fact that professors are expected to shoot at both of these targets at once is one of the key reasons that anything lower than a B is practically unheard of at many schools and that possession of a college degree means increasingly little to employers. The latter is of special concern to job-hunting graduates as they discover that their interviewers are far more concerned with their experience than with their degrees. It is no wonder they are upset that they wasted four years they could have spent getting experience on a piece of paper that employers simply assume and then forget.
College Is Not Right For Everyone
This situation is not merely unfortunate; it is also unsustainable. While I sympathize with Dedicated Professor’s high view of education, I hope that he does not teach economics, because Alumnus is quite correct about the tuition bubble. Just like housing costs were inflated by the huge pool of money made available by cheap mortgages, and medical costs have been inflated by the huge pool of money made available by comprehensive insurance, education costs have been inflated by the huge pool of money made available by easy student loans. Dedicated Professor can rightly cite the major expenses of maintaining a modern university, but the costs of most of the items on his list have not risen so much in the last 30 years in other sectors. They cost that much in education because they can cost that much in education which, in turn, is because so many people have been bamboozled into borrowing huge sums of money to pay for them. Our government’s recent attempts to address the situation through reduced monthly payments that keep students on the hook longer may ensure that the banks continue to get their money, but they do little to help the long-term prospects of the debt-ridden and unemployed or to lower the cost of college.
It is not a question of whether the ideal college education is worth that kind of money—a priceless education is worth any kind of money at all. When acquiring the priceless, one does not ask how much it is worth, but how much one is willing and able to pay, and whether the item is really priceless. The preponderance of student loan debt shows us that we have already gone well beyond what we are able to pay in monetary terms. The growing ages at which these debts are finally paid off show that we will quickly be going beyond what we have to give even in terms of a future in which to labor.
In light of this, it is necessary to ask whether college is, in practice, really the best way to educate everyone. Even someone like Dedicated Professor with an extremely idealistic view of college recognizes how possible it is to pass through without actually acquiring an education. Many high-school graduates are unable, unwilling, or unready to put in the work required to become educated at college, which is far more than the work required to merely get a piece of paper certifying that one is educated.
Why pressure them into the university, then pay for their dubious “college experience?” Why not allow them to instead engage in productive labor while they gain the character to appreciate an education? Why not encourage those who do not yet have the resources for college to become educated through less-expensive means such as reading high-quality literature and gaining an appreciation for the arts? Why not take applicable classes here and there rather than a long-term degree program? Many academics would scoff at such lowbrow ideas, but when compared to participating in the four years of socialization and carousing that often characterize the college experience whilst someone else pays the university tens of thousands of dollars to print a communications degree, these alternatives offer a far better education. The ideal of the university is not often the reality.
Drop The College Fantasy
Though they apparently disagree, it is possible to satisfy both Alumnus and Dedicated Professor.
The cost is simply to let go of the Baby Boomers’ dream that everyone becomes a college graduate four years after becoming a high school graduate. Unlike Alumnus, I love my master’s degree and have never regretted getting it. However, unlike Alumnus, I pursued it at a point in my life when I could actually afford it without debt. By that time, I also possessed a character capable of taking advantage of it—I was not yet there when I did my undergraduate work immediately after high school. And though I had hoped my master’s would open a different career, I already had a viable backup in the very probable case that it did not. In other words, I was able to go in with eyes open because I was old enough to be skeptical of the education industry’s marketing.
The economic benefits of a college education are increasingly unable to justify the economic costs, and the human value of a college education cannot bear a monetary price tag anyway. Fine art is precious, but nobody in their right mind thinks we should encourage everyone in the nation to mortgage their house to buy some. If we are to value education as it ought to be valued—as Dedicated Professor values it—then college needs to stop being “the high school after high school.” It needs to stop being portrayed as the essential next step for everyone that opens up the gateway to prosperity. When that stops, there will be far fewer unemployed graduates like Alumnus who feel they were bamboozled.