Higher education’s new sobriety

Financial crunch time is a good moment to re-assess the benefits of a college education. 
Kevin Ryan | Apr 23 2009 | comment  

My father never went to college. As a high school senior in New York City, he applied to Columbia University. He was 16 and thought he might become a chemist. Columbia accepted him, but said he had to wait until he was 17 to attend. The family story goes that when autumn came, his mother tired of his wearing out sneakers playing handball [a big game in New York in those pre-World War One days] and said, “John, wash up and go out and get a job.” He found a job ad in the New York Times, applied for it, got it and loved it. The following autumn, when it was time to go to Columbia, all thoughts of classrooms, books, beakers and test tubes had vanished. He kept that first job and retired from it 60 years later.

As a result, my Dad wasn’t much help when I asked for his advice on a hot summer night, two weeks before I was to leave the family nest for college. Earlier that spring I had applied, been accepted and paid the $15 earnest money to guarantee a desk in the freshman class. That summer, however, my boss, the tennis pro at the local country club, had made me an offer I was finding it hard to refuse. For the past couple of summers I had been his factotum, mainly stringing racquets and occasionally filling in for lessons when he was hung over or romancing one of the ladies of the club.

Annually, when the leaves fell, he packed up and went to a fancy club in Hobe Sound, Florida. His offer to me was to go with him, become his “assistant pro” and learn the trade of a tennis professional. My dilemma: classrooms and books vs. Florida sun, tennis and, of course, romance. I laid all this out to my father as carefully and rationally as I could. After a long pause, he asked me, “Well, what do you want to do?” I explained that I’d been back-and-forth, weighing the pros-and-cons for days and nights and I just didn’t know what to do. Another pause and he said, “Well, you’ve got a real problem there.” And, with that observation, he got up and went to the kitchen for a highball. End of advice. And, incidentally, I never got to Hobe Sound.

The agony of choice

Today, the whole process of going off to college is overloaded with advice, research and layers of college counselors and expertise. What was once a rather casual process has become for many the biggest decision moment of their lives. It is the rare high school senior (or parents of a senior) who is not wrapped in knots about the “college decision.” A few days ago the much-anticipated, April 1st letters arrived informing the seniors that “Yes, of course, we want you,” “Thanks, but no thanks,” or “We like you, but not enough. You’re short-listed.” Labels of “winners” and “losers” have been handed out to the members of the Class of 2009 from faceless academic bureaucrats. Futures which seemed fluid and open have begun to congeal and harden. Emotions that have been building for some students for 12 or 13 years, and for some parents since conception, have burst forth.

This year the emotional roller coaster of the college decision is even worse.

The economy and what it has done to family savings and how it haunts the future has darkened the process for many. College 529 investment funds have dramatically shrunk, along with universities’ stock heavy endowments. College loans are more costly. Many seniors who once planned to go to elite four-year colleges are now pointing toward their state university. Students who had been planning on their big state university are thinking of living at home and attending a nearby satellite public university. Those formerly targeting those universities are applying to two-year junior colleges and vocational schools. Many others will be scurrying hard to find employment. Any employment.

All of this is causing a new sobriety in higher education. Since World War II, higher ed has been on a roll. The college degree, once the province of the well-heeled elite or impassioned minds hungry to learn, became in the last half of the 20th century a modest thing, an all-too-common achievement. Colleges and universities proliferated. Our best universities became the envy of the world. Many more accommodated to the new students by lowering standards and providing a bread-and-circus campus life. The earlier question, “Is Herman really ‘college material?’” evaporated because now “there was a college for everyone and everyone was college material.” In our wealthy nation, getting a college education was an affordable luxury reachable by all but a few families. This appears to be changing.

There are a number of research studies claiming to demonstrate that a college degree means a substantially larger lifetime income versus their high school chums who go directly to work. Maybe so. However, I have friends who skipped college and don’t look any the less for it. Many work in the trades and have an easy, grounded confidence that they can handle whatever comes their way. I have never sensed that they envy their office-bound and computer jockey friends. Just the opposite. This is no argument to skip college, but background to a number of questions.

Poison Ivy?

One, where should I go to college? Research tells us that there is some slight economic advantage to going to an elite school. The top professional schools are more impressed by an Ivy League degree than one from a state university. That aside, it is a mixed picture. Elite schools are great for job-related networking (read: Old Boys/New Girls clubs). However, I have known several former students who were diminished by their Ivy League educational experience. The competition and pressure to perform got to them and they went from confident, achieving high school students to mediocre, insecure adults. In other words, the most selective and prestigious school into which one can be admitted may not be the best place to go.

Two, what to “get” from college? Of course, the classical answer is “an education,” by which people meant a grounding in mankind’s best thought and understanding. That meant four years of liberal education, the Great Books, a foreign language, mathematics, science and a serious exposure to the arts. The required curriculum was the college’s statement of what was most worth knowing if one was serious about taking one’s place in the world. In the normal four year program of study, three-plus years of course work was laid out and required. Then came the 1960s when university curriculum committees folded under the pressure of slogans like “Different stokes for different folks” and “choice” became their core curricular principle. Enter, too, individual study, internships, practicums, study aboard and electives, electives, electives.

This college curricular shift from a fixed price menu to a sprawling cafeteria has made higher education much more democratic and accessible to the hordes coming simply to “get a degree.” Also, higher education’s more recent focus on vocationalism with highly specific training, preparing graduates for immediate employment as graphic designers or food journalists, may have some virtues. It may, for instance, fit the needs of high school graduates who have had a rigorous exposure to the world’s best thought in programs, such as the International Baccalaureate.

Nevertheless, it does seem wrong to go through four years of one’s intellectually formative years without being seriously challenged by philosophical and theological questions. Perhaps the old ideal of a liberal education is just for the elite, those who aspire to leadership roles. It provokes the question, though, as a republic, do we really want to be ruled by people who have never read the Federalist Papers, or learned what “growing up” means reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, or had a chilling foretaste of old age from King Lear and of true human treachery from Macbeth?

This second question, then, needs to be rephrased from what I want to get out of college to what I want to be at the end. While a very hard question at any time in life, it is particularly daunting at 17 and 18. Still before committing four years of one’s life and staggering amounts of money, the question cries out for serious attention.

Three, why go to college now? Having spent my life in the field of education, the only higher education generalization about which I am confident is this: I have never meet anyone who was sorry he or she took time out before starting college. Some young men and women did service work with the poor. Some rather aimlessly traveled on their own. Some took on a series of different jobs to explore the world of work. Some deferred for a year. Some for much longer. Not a few elected to serve in the armed services. All were happy with their decisions and appeared to “do college” with more confidence and maturity. Whether today is a good time to go to college or to explore the world is, as Candidate Obama famously said, “above my pay grade.” However, if the dark forecasts of a new global economic order come to pass, the world may hunger for college graduates who blended their classroom learning with a heavy dose of non-academic street smarts.

This just in. My home-schooled granddaughter was just admitted to Auburn University. She is 14. I wonder what her great grandfather is thinking?

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at kryan@bu.edu

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