The Problem With College Isn’t the Education, It’s the Price

While I usually agree with Ed at Gin and Tacos, this doesn’t seem right to me:

The predominant complaint about college students today (and probably of yesteryear as well) is that they put so little emphasis on academics. Going to class and doing the work we assign is about 7th on their list of priorities, behind drinking, getting laid, football, the Greek system, spring break, “study” abroad, etc. You name it, it has priority over reading, writing papers, studying, attending class, or anything else for which they are ostensibly here. College has ceased to be about education for most students; it’s a four (or five) year party, a middle- and upper-class rite de passage of sex, drugs, and shitty club music. There’s a reason that the fancy new gym and rec center and Student Union and climbing wall – put climbing walls everywhere, dammit – are the focus of the campus tour. Who cares about the library. It’s beside the point.

He then argues that this attitude makes sense given the crappy economy: this might be the last time students will live well for a very long time (or at all), so why not live it up? The problem with this argument is that college was never about learning for most students (as opposed to accreditation): it has always been about “drinking, getting laid, football, the Greek system, spring break, “study” abroad, etc.”, albeit the relative importance of each of these things has differed by era and school (you could probably add ‘grow as a person’ to the list). It has been that way through boom and bust.

The dirty secret is that many college-level jobs don’t require advanced technical skills requiring rigorous education (basic computer literacy and, well, literacy aren’t advanced–or shouldn’t be anyway):

This is why I refer to even the ‘elite’ universities as finishing schools: in general (unless you decide to acquire some very specific technical or analytical skills), they teach you how to look and act like a smart upper-middle class person. Many professional jobs, even some really high-paying ones, require long hours and a willingness to not buck the system or question, but technically, there’s not much needed.

The real problem is the price of college–for many students, they have to take on debt, which is often crippling (boldface mine):

The burden of debt has become the lens through which I see my workplace, and it is rapidly altering my view of my profession. I can no longer fulfill my classroom duties without wondering if the ultimate price, for many of my students, is a form of indenture. This is not an extreme way of putting it. After all, the indentured have to go into debt in order to find work, and their wages are then used to pay off the debts. I have concluded that it is immoral to expect young people to privately debt-finance a basic social good like education, especially if we are telling them that a college degree is their passport to a livelihood that is increasingly thin on the ground.

I was educated in the Scottish university system in the 1970s. It was free then, and it still is, as is the case in many countries less affluent than the U.S. If the U.S. is going to have any kind of stable middle class in the 21st century, it may have to join that list of countries. On a rough estimate, it would only take $70 billion of the federal budget to cover the tuition costs at every two- and four-year public college. This happens to be the sum the Pentagon wastes annually in “unaccountable spending,” according to a recent audit, a testimony to how skewed our national priorities have become.

$70 billion–and it would be less if we re-instituted the sane prices of the 1970s and 1980s–is less than 0.5% of annual GDP. This is a small price to pay to prevent an economic ‘lost generation’, one that feels betrayed (and rightly so) by its elders. Remember: someday you will be old, and they will have to look out for you….

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4 Responses to The Problem With College Isn’t the Education, It’s the Price

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    Of course, the reason the campus has a fancy new gym, whilst the labs and the library are crumbling, is wholly due to modern, Millennial students’ priorities. Nothing to do with the grown-ups. Naturally. Mm-hmm. Not a doubt about it.

  2. Jim Thomerson says:

    The cost of college has gone down from what it was in the 1950s. This is my personal story, and I am sticking to it. I grew up working on the family ranch. When I was six years old, a neighbor rancher gave me two dogie goat kids. That was the start of my goat raising for college money. When I was 14 I sold out: 75 goats at $5 a head.

    When I entered the University of Texas in 1953, tuition alone was $25 a semester, five goats. It soon doubled to $50 a semester, 10 goats. Today, UT tuition and fees run around $4,800 a semester. The guy I sold my pasture to raised registered Boer goats. He sold them internationally and locally at $500 for a 90 day old kid. So ten goats is now $5,000, $200 more than tuition and fees for a semester. I do realize that not all youngsters aspiring to higher education will be able to raise goats, so perhaps goat husbandry is not a universal solution to university costs.

  3. This comic might not be directly apropos, but this post is as good a time as any to link to it:

  4. Pingback: When It Comes to the Cost of Public Universities, We Can Bring Back the Old Days | Mike the Mad Biologist

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