Fall is upon us again, and with the start of school, the annual debate about the real value and the high cost of a college education is “open for discussion” once more! Over the last few years this debate has taken on a much sharper and angrier tone due to the continuing precariousness of both the national and global economies.
The argument goes something like this. Public colleges and universities now cost around $25,000 per year for room and board. Private college costs range from $40,000 to $52,000 a year. Besides parental support and part-time employment, many students are forced to take loans to cover their expenses, and graduate with debts ranging from $20,000 to $50,000. The cost of college aside, the real kicker comes at graduation. Except for the top students at the most prestigious schools, starting pay for recent college grads has been on the decline for over 5 years. And, to add insult to injury, thanks to the recession, jobs, any kind of job, are in short supply. So the question being asked is not altogether unreasonable: Is it worth paying out $100,000 to $160,000 to get a $40,000 job? If you’re lucky!
I know I’m going to sound like a crabby, old man, which I am, but the answer is yes, damn it! The liberal arts and sciences college was never designed to become a job training program. The goals were becoming a reasonably literate citizen of the world, achieving some insight into the various issues that make up a literate society, and living as a person who had some intelligent understanding of the larger-than-local interests. To lose that emphasis and try to push colleges to become primarily trade schools seems to me to be a misplaced value.
Don’t get me wrong, I sent my kids to school to get an education and a job! And that’s what I want for everyone who survives the college experience. But times are tough, jobs across the board– from a janitor’s position to the executive suite–are in short supply. Does that mean we give up? Stop educating our children? Literacy, self awareness, political and social sensitivity, and appreciation of the arts are as necessary for a “quality life” as a good job that makes serious money.
Yes, reform is needed at the university level. Yes, costs need to be controlled. Yes, we need to better connect the necessary goals of personal growth/wisdom and skills/jobs. Nevertheless, for me the bottom line of education is both clear and crucial for all of us: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)