This blog post has been tumbling around in the back of my mind for a while. Probably because I work in higher education, I read many, many articles about it. And after a while, it does get pretty depressing, because it seems like the articles out there primarily say a few redundant and discouraging things:

  1. The higher education system is broken and we should [insert remedy here, often depending on the political stance of the writer or newspaper].
  2. Students can’t pay for college anymore because the financial aid system is broken, and we should either provide more aid to students who really need it, or do away with aid altogether and just let the well-off students pay for their own educations. (Again, often depending on the political stance of the commentator.)
  3. Students are going to college for better career opportunities and more money, and that [is working out well, or isn’t working out well…although this one usually relies on anecdotes rather than political affiliation for the punchline].

I’m generally in favor of variety, and this getting quite old. I think in the past year or so, nearly every article on higher ed I’ve read has touched on at least one of these points. I do agree with the former parts of points 1 and 2; our higher ed system in the U.S. could certainly use improving, and the financial aid system currently in place isn’t keeping pace with students’ needs.

The message that I find most discouraging, though, is number three. I was doing research for a scholarship a couple of months ago when I ran across this article from Forbes, written in 1998. Eerily prescient, it questions the value of higher education, but on such narrow economic terms that I nearly started shaking my computer screen in frustration as I read it. To sum it up, it gives seven anecdotes of people who have all been successful entrepreneurs without a bachelor’s degree (mostly in technology industries, naturally) and then asks why millions of students are bothering to go to college.

HOLY SHITTAKE MUSHROOMS, BATMAN. I’m fairly sure that next time I come across a news outlet parroting that same line, I’m going to start screaming.

This may come as a shock to the writers of such articles, but not every single student is interested in being an entrepreneur or a millionaire. Yes, most students do enroll in higher education hoping or expecting that their job prospects will be better upon leaving, but that isn’t always the sole reason. In fact, the writers of most of these articles probably have a bachelor’s degree in English, communication, or journalism. And the average starting salary for a journalist in the U.S. is $27,560 a year. Might I hazard a guess that the career choice there wasn’t in hopes of getting rich, but perhaps a passion for good reporting, a belief that truths deserve to be heard, or a desire to have a positive influence in the world?

But after all this frustration, I came across this quote* from an article on the recent UVa board/president kerfuffle.

“What we need is to learn the discipline of business without the short-term orientation. Markets are amoral. A competitive market will determine a fair price—whether for cocaine or cocoa—but not necessarily the enduring social value. A one-year increase of 25 percent in the price of a house does not reveal the underlying forces causing the price increase, or its real value. Markets do not know the worth of a mature forest three generations hence. Nor can a market accurately determine the lifetime value of thoughtful exposure to the classics or art or music. Enduring acts of civility are not bought and sold. The qualities that professional educators worry about often do not lend themselves to short-term market valuation.

That quote is written down and pinned to the wall next to my desk. It’s the thing that keeps me sane whenever I read yet another article claiming that the ONLY good reason to go to college is to make more money, and therefore you should ONLY major in a “marketable” subject.

As for me:
Yes, I did hope that going to college would result in better career opportunities for me.
Yes, I grew tremendously in unexpected and wonderful ways from going to college.
Yes, it was worth it in EVERY sense of the word. (And yes, I’m still paying off my student loans.)

Every time I hear a conversation that values education only for the economic benefits it might bring to the particular individual undertaking the schooling, I ask myself what value I really put on money, on education. I do want to earn enough to pay my bills, feed my family, and keep a roof over our heads, but it sure as hell wasn’t the reason that I am passionate about education.

What about you? There are so many voices in this conversation, and part of my frustration is only hearing the same old tired perspectives again and again.

Love, peace, and eternal optimism,

*Citation: Keep, William W. “The Worrisome Ascendance of Business in Higher Education.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 21 2012.

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