Higher education's new sobriety

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

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,

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
or learned
what “growing up” means reading St. Augustine’s
or had a chilling foretaste of old age from
and of true human
treachery from

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 [email protected]


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