This probably isn’t news to many of my readers, but lately critics–and even educators–have begun to question whether or not college is a good investment for everyone. In a recent Daily Beast article, “Is College a Lousy Investment?”, Megan McArdle points out many of the flaws in the current higher education system and how our increasing obsession with making sure that everyone graduating high school goes on to pursue a college degree may not be so healthy:
For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus. . . Promotional literature for colleges and student loans often speaks of debt as an “investment in yourself.” But an investment is supposed to generate income to pay off the loans. More than half of all recent graduates are unemployed or in jobs that do not require a degree, and the amount of student-loan debt carried by households has more than quintupled since 1999. These graduates were told that a diploma was all they needed to succeed, but it won’t even get them out of the spare bedroom at Mom and Dad’s. For many, the most tangible result of their four years is the loan payments, which now average hundreds of dollars a month on loan balances in the tens of thousands.
Yet, parents–the same ones who are upside-down on their mortgages and have lost their investments and perhaps even their jobs because of the recession–are still pushing their kids to take on this debt. Political rhetoric continues to laud a college degree as the key to the American Dream. The problem is this dream is about an America that no longer exists.
I don’t think that many of my freshman are even aware of these things. And if they are, then in the optimism of youth, they probably believe they’ll be the exception to the rule. But even those who think they’re the exception have probably not considered the most essential question they need to be asking themselves: Why college?
Of course, that question and the various possible answers to it immediately lead to more questions. And I’ve decided to ask my First-Year Composition students to try to answer those questions this semester. In addition to “Why college?”, they will also be asked to consider and answer the questions “What is college (good) for?” and “Is college (good) enough?” I have explained to my students that the parentheses indicate potential variations on the question and the opening up of different questions to answer within those variations. I am not trying to incite angst or pessimism in my students. I have tried to ask questions that I think are important for them–and everyone else invested in higher education–to consider. I have also provided them with several sources that present all viewpoints on these questions to read as they consider and write about them (I have listed these sources at the end of this post).
So far, my students have only had to grapple with the very personal, and seemingly inane, question “Why college?”. I have skimmed the responses and have not been surprised by the answers (a more detailed post dealing with my students’ responses to the question is forthcoming). Many of them, in fact, come across as rote, with almost every student citing the same standard set of reasons: it was always expected of them; it is the only way to get a good-paying job; it will make them financially secure; it will help them support their future families; they want to experience the freedom and exciting social environment that college offers. Very few responses have mentioned a life’s calling or a passion. Even fewer have questioned if college is really for everyone.
I am by no means a fatalist about the value of college. College transformed my life. If it were not for college, I would more than likely be living in poverty. I, like many of my students, am a first-generation college student (neither of my parents completed high school). But despite growing up poor, I was encouraged to read and explore things that interested me. I fell in love with school during my elementary years and can still recall teachers and moments when I learned something that expanded my mind or soul. Unfortunately, much of my enthusiasm for school was squashed in secondary school when I transferred to a city school system. For one thing, my new peers ostracized and made fun of me, partly because I was poor and from “hillbilly” country, but mostly because of my love for reading. My teachers didn’t exactly help the situation, since I found most of what they were teaching to be irrelevant or something that I could learn on my own by reading a book. My elementary school had doubled-up classes, so by the time I finished 4th grade I had already learned what the 5th graders were being taught. When I entered the city system, I had to sit through an entire year of classes on things I had already learned (this was before No Child Left Behind, so there was no gifted program available or I might have received the challenging learning opportunities I needed). I did take a few AP English classes in high school and did well in those, but my overall GPA was abysmal because I was so bored and adrift as a student. College was not really something I had considered, but my parents encouraged me to go and my ACT scores were high enough to get me accepted by several regional universities.
I ended up enrolling in a small public liberal arts university, almost as an afterthought. And my life was immediately and irrevocably altered. In his book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson argues that in order for your passion to really ignite, you must find your tribe–those people who share, and therefore help nurture, your passion. And that’s what I found in college–a tribe of people just like me, who not only loved to read and learn, but shared what they had read and learned with others and encouraged others to read and learn along with them. It was not uncommon for a group of students to hang around after class and continue to discuss issues and class readings with our professors. Sometimes our professors would even hang out with us at the local coffee shop or pizza place, engaging us in Socratic questioning sessions about Shakespeare and Walker Percy and the Romantics. Even classes that I didn’t particularly like or excel in, like Chemistry and Botany, seemed like journeys through mystical worlds. Because I was in the Honors Program, I was able to take double the normal number of electives, so I took classes on architecture and the Christianity of C.S. Lewis (in which our professor, who normally taught History, would serve us tea and homemade pastries to help set the mood), classes that had waiting lists because so many students wanted to learn about these things. I felt honored to have the opportunity to be among this tribe. They nurtured my passion and inspired my life’s calling.
Perhaps that is why so much of the magic that I experienced in college has disappeared. Too many people who are in college today don’t want to be there. I never see students hanging around after class to discuss ideas or books with their professors. When I walk down the hallway with students, I don’t see much passion. In fact, far too many of them resemble automatons, wound up and placed on a path of someone else’s choosing. At least the automatons have some self-awareness; they seem to understand that someone else has chosen their destiny, but they either can’t or don’t know how to change directions. Far worse are the zombie students, unaware of and disconnected from what’s happening around them, mindlessly motivated by money or success or athletic fame. Some of them are not even motivated by anything; they’re just aimlessly wandering, vacuous and devoid of desire or direction.
In the first episode of The Walking Dead, there’s a particularly pathetic legless zombie girl whom Rick Grimes discovers crawling, inch by inch, through the park. At the end of the episode, Rick finds the girl, still crawling, inch by excruciating inch, towards nothing. Always the man to do the right thing, he puts her out of her misery. But before he does, he tells her he’s sorry this has happened to her. I’m afraid that some day in the near future we’re going to have an entire generation of college graduates who feel lost, bamboozled, angry, and buried beneath a suffocating and inescapable load of debt.
And we’re going to owe them a very big apology.