(Not to idealize the seventies too much, tempting though that may sometimes be--those of us who lived through that era could no doubt come up with a litany of travails that plagued us at the time, from bad fashion choices to serious social ills. But for now I'm going to set aside the fact that memory skews toward nostalgia and talk about the bigger issue of what's changed with regard to general assumptions about college, and why.)
The easy answer seems to be cost--a no-brainer. All of us know that when there's a line item in the budget that seems potentially optional, we're more likely to decide to live without it if its price spikes (especially when our income doesn't). In 2012, Bloomberg.com (here) reported that in the prior 35 years, the cost of college (tuition, room and board) increased a staggering 1,120 percent, far outpacing inflation. Thus, the nearly daily dire warnings about student indebtedness today seem like a logical consequence: Of course we're asking whether college is worth it. Time ran a 2012 story asking that very question, and its graphs based on data from Pew (here) explore the issue in purely financial terms: cost, payoff, and so forth.
What if we're asking the wrong question?
Buried in the same graph--yet barely addressed by the Time article--I noticed that while a "slim majority" of surveyed college graduates (55%) believed that college "prepared them for a job," far more (74%) believed they grew intellectually, while 69% believed that college helped them to mature. Thus, a far greater percentage believed they benefited from college in less tangible ways that can't be expressed through economic terms--yet the Time article itself hardly even touches on that data, as though intellectual growth and maturity matter far less than earning power and don't even factor into the question of whether college is "worth it."
The graduates' responses certainly ring true with my own experience: I began college as a thirty-year-old freshman, having entered a career-oriented training program after high school. In my twenties I was pulling down a pretty fat salary (in Wordsworth's terms, I was "getting and spending," and I was beginning to "lay waste [my] powers"). I returned to college by conscious choice because I felt, as strongly as I've ever felt anything, that something in my life was missing. I wasn't looking for more money, I wasn't looking for status, and I wasn't looking for a new job, though in the long run I ended up with one. (My timing was fortunate; I doubt the meandering path I took into academia is even available to somebody in such a position nowadays.)
Was it worth it? Absolutely, one hundred percent, without a shred of doubt or a moment of pause, yes, yes, yes and yes. (The only things in my life that have been more "worth it" are my relationships with spouse, children, family and close friends; travel and education are tied.) What was I looking for? Though it was hard for me to articulate back then--and in some ways still is--I believe now that I wanted a more profound understanding of life, a more expansive sense of the world, and a clearer understanding of my place in it. I wanted my own world to grow larger; I wanted my life to mean more.
In all that, I succeeded--not in answering all the questions, but in understanding more deeply what the big questions are, why they matter, and my own relationship to them. Education expanded my world, and it never shrunk back to its original smallness. Paradoxically, as that happened, my own ego became less important. A quality humanities education can teach you that while your life does matter, you're also one of several billion people presently on the planet (not to mention the countless trillions that came before and will come after), all of equal worth, and whatever triumphs or travails you may have experienced, you haven't been singled out; stuff happens to all of us. Your story matters--and it's also part of a much larger tapestry of stories, which matter as much as your own.
The result of a strong humanities-based education is paradoxical: it humbles you at the same time as it empowers you. Done right, it can enrich not only the individual who experiences it, but society as a whole (imagine what might happen if if more people come to see the big picture and work together to create a world in which all human lives have value.) Try putting a price tag on that.
You can't. Frankly, I would have been far better off financially had I stayed in my prior career. This I know, though I've never run the numbers to figure out exactly how much I "lost" by choosing education over earnings. I don't intend on doing so--because it doesn't matter. In Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan, the character of Lord Darlington famously defines the cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." I'm not cynical.
Far less famous is Cecil Graham's rejoinder: "And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing." Graham has a point too, and I'm also not sentimental. Even if everyone were to agree tomorrow that the real purpose of college extends beyond money, some nagging problems would remain, the most obvious being: Who pays? Can society really afford to grant a huge swath of its citizens the opportunity to lead more "meaningful" lives? Is it easy to blather on about "meaning" when you've already got enough money to put food on the table? How do we meet people's material needs?
I fall somewhere between Darlington and Graham: yes, there is such a thing as value beyond price, and right now our society has gone way past the tipping point, accepting the fallacy that only quantifiable things matter. And yes, money matters, and only a fool would claim otherwise. Frankly, it was largely because I'd had job training before I went to college that I was able to go at all. (The story behind why my parents couldn't send me is far too long to share now, though I may get into that later.) Somebody's got to pay, and when it's over, even the most idealistic college graduate is going to need to find a job.
Then there's the question of why college is outpacing inflation so egregiously--a vexed and complex issue that I will address in the future. When I started college in 1991, it wasn't cheap, but at the state universities I attended, in-state tuition was at least manageable. Easy for me to say it was worth it; it was a stretch, and we made a few sacrifices, but ultimately I could afford it. Is there a "price point" (a marketing term I hate, but it's a buzzword) at which my analysis no longer applies?
Another problem is less obvious and that is: How do we express the non-material value of college in a way that does not insult those who didn't attend, whether by circumstance or by choice? Something I remember from my own fourteen-year gap between high school and college: When college-educated folks discuss how college has enriched their lives, those who didn't go often hear something like this: Your life is not as enriched/meaningful/valuable as mine. Tricky, that one. (And it's a real thing--ask anyone who didn't go.) I realize now, three degrees later, that college did enrich my life immensely. I also refuse to believe I was a "loser" before I went--or that anyone's quality of life or value as a human being should be defined by their educational level.
(Now that I'm one of them, I also realize today that there are probably a good many college grads who never intend to come across as snobs. However, there are such people among the educated, and right now elitism isn't helping us any when it comes to persuading people of the non-monetary value of college. Just because a humanities-based education can have a humbling, ennobling effect, it doesn't automatically follow that it will--and hypocrisy is as rampant among educated idealists as among any other group of people. Hypocrisy, in fact, seems to be a rather common human failing--one reason I never tire of teaching Moliere's Tartuffe.)
So how do we talk about the non-tangible purposes of college without sounding elitist and exclusionary? How do we design college education so that it can do two necessary things simultaneously: enrich our lives and prepare us for jobs? How do we reconfigure higher education so that it more often achieves all that it is capable of achieving--while still valuing those who do not go to college at all, whether by choice or necessity, as well as those who choose fields other than the humanities? (Because, as much as I love the humanities, other choices have value too.)
Not least of all, how do we make higher education accessible, financially and otherwise, for a wider range of people? Meaning, enrichment, value--none of those things may be tangible, yet all of them are real. Yet most of us still need to pay for the roofs over our heads, the food on our tables, the clothes on our backs. When the price of "meaning" increases 1,120% every 35 years, a lot of us are going to say "to heck with that" and accept reality television as "good enough." Hey, we're entertained at the end of a hard day's work and if life is supposed to be for more than that, well, guess we'll have to take a pass on that this time, a lot of people will say. Read the comment stream in the Bloomberg article, in which more than one commentator refers to non-j0b-training-related college courses as "fluff."
A lot of work lies ahead. What to do? I'll be exploring that further in the days and weeks ahead. A first thought, however, is that if we want to keep alive the humanities and all they have to offer, they can't belong only to the realm of the university. They need to be out in the world, accessible to everybody, not only those with the financial and circumstantial means to obtain formal education. At the same time, we need to work toward expanded access (especially financial) to formal education, as well as an understanding of "what college is for" that both includes and reaches beyond the idea that higher education is simply training for a job. It is that.
It's also more than that.