As the Assembly Grapples with College Costs, It Bears Asking: Why Go to College Anyway?

Cross Posted from Dan Kurz’s Jersey Globe Blog:…

This week the Assembly’s Committee on Higher Ed is hearing from a wide assortment of voices – college presidents, faculty, students, graduates – in an effort to get to the bottom of why a university education has become so expensive in New Jersey, and what can be done about it. And from press reports, it’s obvious to see that the committee, in the end, needs to grapple with the central questions concerning the complex relationship between students, expectations and a university education. Why should anyone go to college anyway? What is the value of a university education?

I often tell my high school students this: while it is true that college graduates make more money overall during their lifetimes than others, in the end, that’s not the purpose of a university education. A college education is not the same, in any respect, as technical training. Most professors will not care, at least not at the outset, of what your career plans are. In the end, and I believe this is not an oversimplification, a university (and the education it provides) is about the conversation. Or rather, it is a conversation. It’s about people learning and exchanging ideas, generating new ones, publicizing concepts, accepting some while changing or disregarding others. We see this information exchange primarily in the form of the classroom and lecture hall, as well as in publishing in text and on the Internet. But, I remind them, don’t let the lush lawns or the stately stone buildings or the basketball games fool you; those are beside the point. If you want to succeed in college and get the most out of it, you’ve got to accept the university for the idea factory that it is.

I attended Rutgers University during most of the 1990’s where I earned my B.A. in history and my M.A. in political science. While I knew that I wanted to become a high school teacher, I also accepted the fact that I probably wouldn’t learn the ins-and-outs of the educational business until I was in it. That’s not why I went to college. Though I earned several scholarships and fellowships during my time at Rutgers, I managed to graduate with some debt. It was worth it, because going to Rutgers transformed me –  or rather – set me on a path to become a better critical thinker, and a better communicator in both reading and writing. It boosted and directed my lifelong quest to learn. My experience at Rutgers introduced me, truly, to the complexities of this world and transformed a teen that believed in absolute truths into a young adult that was highly suspicious of all forms of authority in a world of gray.

I attended Rutgers because I knew that there I would be exposed to all sorts of voices, both living and dead, emanating from the arts and sciences. I went because, to really understand well, at least for myself, I needed to learn and debate the great ideas with great minds in the classroom environment. This debate took many forms; sometimes oral, sometimes written, but always, always centering on ideas.

If you don’t like ideas, if you disdain reading, if every second behind a desk grappling with abstract notions is viewed as a form of punishment, then by all means, don’t go to college. It’s not for everyone; and just because you don’t want to go to college, it’s not indicative of an inexorable slide into poverty. There are ways people can add ample value to their labor through technical training and other experience. I know many car mechanics, truck salesmen and restaurant managers who make a fine living and I know many college grads who are dead broke.

College is not a gateway to riches – or at least riches in monetary form. It is an important credential, no doubt, but as a credential, I do not know of a single bachelor’s program that leads directly and immediately to a secure, lifelong job. No way. And any program that claims to guarantee a lifelong a job is being dishonest.  

Students need to understand that college – at least the undergraduate experience – goes on for a long time; really for half a decade. It’s not something that you can ‘wing’ per se, especially in the great universities like Rutgers, NYU, Princeton or UCLA. Getting through college requires a real shift in priorities, especially the priorities of the mind. This is why I have so much respect for those who have to work their way through college or come to the university in mid to late adulthood. They know that the average adult has zillions of priorities to cope with, but to be intellectually healthy and to grow, regardless of whatever situation you find yourself in, your curiosity and willingness to learn must be a prized value. It’s true what so many grandparents tell their children: no one, ever, can take away what you’ve learned and earned, at least not what is intellectually earned. And perhaps in the end it may be all you ever have.

Okay, perhaps I’m waxing too poetically here. I apologize for droning on. But we need to be honest with our young people about what a university education is, and what it is not, and what it can be expected to do.

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