I just want to visit some thoughtfulness upon the latest news of a Connecticut college exceeding the $70K mark on tuition, leading the pricetag pack for the nation. I want to be thoughtful and not just indignant, paralyzed by the sticker shock. Because sticker shock about the cost of higher education is nothing new. Neither is the slackjaw expression of parents, sizing up that great economic pipeline into which we are setting our little children, fearful of how high that tuition will inevitably climb when it’s our turn to cut a check. Or cash out on our bitcoins. And what then?
I really believe in the function of college, particularly as adolescence is lasting longer and longer and university is something of a petri dish in which to grow some thoughtful, civic-minded adults. I had the great fortune to attend a small college in a wee little hamlet, with hills and grassy knolls. I don’t use fortune lightly–tuition was $26,000 in the year nineteen hundred and ninety eight. I received scholarships and worked as an RA for 3 years to defray costs of room and board. Good, good, Kendra, so when are we going to move past the part about your privilege?
That’s exactly the point. I come from some absurd privilege, which I define as having attended private school and having two supportive parents who had earned degrees and had professional careers for years. Also, I took tennis lessons in high school and sometimes wore a tennis skirt which is obnoxious; all the volunteering in the world cannot course correct for that kind of privileged bologna.
But those same dynamics would not have been enough to buoy me through that same college experience and dump me out on the other side of four years, diploma-fied and debt-free, if I were a student matriculating in this current calendar year. $70,000 would simply represent too much of a burden for my family financially. And I am pretty real about what represented a burden for my family, and that many, many families around the world would love to call that a burden. There’s simply no way, with the endowment that most colleges draw from, that aid could cover enough of the portion to make it worthwhile for me to bite the bullet on $70,000/year and incur any attendant debt to make up the shortfall.
I can’t even say that it would be worth it. Because what enlightenment upon a grassy knoll could possibly be worth shouldering that kind of financial burden? What kind of career guarantee, what kind of network assurance is worthy of that kind of economic yoke? I know that medical and law school students ask themselves and their families these kinds of questions all the time. And the answer has to be, it will be worth it. It will all be worth it.
I’m just not sure it is anymore. Not state schools, not private schools, not Ivy League or Ivy League-caliber schools. I’m not sure that the rest of the world doesn’t have it all a little bit or a lot bit right. There are other means by which an educated adult can be built. Perhaps through conscripted service as in Israel. Perhaps in taking a gap year to figure out what on earth a person actually enjoys enough to study and pursue on a full-time basis, as is popular in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe. Or how about first-rate government-subsidized university education as in Scandinavian countries. Those all sound worthy of our earnest consideration.
Kendra is not the greatest economist or thinker but education is supposed to be the great equalizer. For many it has never been an equalizing force, much less accessible. But it seems to me that every strata of education in this country is privileging the privileged more and more, and if we aren’t already paying for it, we are about to. What are your thoughts?