Dec 22


There's an interesting discussion going on at the Chronicle of Higher Education's forums (I know, I'm a glutton for punishment, ain't I?) about parents who won't be able to mortgage their homes to help pay for their children's education because of the current mortgage crisis.  The original poster (who seems even less sensitive to academic egos than I accidentally was last week…apparently we're a growing breed Innocent) finds the idea that this is somehow "bad" for colleges and parents "ridiculous," and follows that sentiment up in a later post by telling people not to "buy into the myth that you need to send your kids to college.  Let them sort their own lives out and pay for it when they are ready, IF they want to go."


As usual where higher education is concerned, this kind of statement immediately throws me off–because I couldn't agree more, and less, with the sentiment behind it.  And I think my own ambivalence to the whole subject mirrors a larger ambivalence in higher education generally.  Politically, those who make up the academy are generally much farther left than the general population (don't fret, Bob Jones and Hillsdale, you keep on fighting the, er, "good fight" out there, y'hear?), and that means that academics tend to be down with (hip language alert: this means "like" or "appreciate," or so my students tell me…I don't think they have a reason to lie) the working class, lower income families who reject the privileged lives led by us ivory tower types (if you could only taste the caviar I eat every morning!  Ah, and the Puligny Montrachet…but I digress (from reality, actually)).  But this is a problem, because despite the dripping sarcasm at the end of the last sentence, I am politically associated with the working class and economically associated with the upper middle class.  

In other words, I'm philosophically democratic and personally elitist…or so goes the argument.  In truth, of course, I'm neither one of those things exactly.  I'm certainly liberal, and I think democracy is a pretty swell thing ("swell" might be a little strong, but I guess I've bought into Churchill's idea about the subject), but I also believe in the benefits of a meritocracy–actually the necessity of a meritocracy, which actually really isn't that debatable if you think about it.  Consider the alternatives to a system where the best people for a job are the ones doing it…Okay, stop considering them, you're starting to freak me out too.  A meritocracy on some level is almost a requirement for anything to get done–but there is obviously a tension between that system and a democracy, where everyone's opinion, theoretically, counts equally.  

And this leads us back to the original thread from the Chronicle.  The sentiments expressed there are, of course, nothing new; for many years people have argued that a college degree isn't necessary, that there's no need for this kind of "elitism" in our culture, and so on and so on.  But there are a couple of problems with the argument–even with the terms of the argument.  What do we mean by "necessary"?  To be a good person?  Obviously not.  To be an important person?  Clearly not.  But statistically speaking, the opportunities afforded those with college degrees are significantly greater than what is afforded those without such degrees…which is why college enrollment is up across the board, and why the market for professors is better than is often claimed (counter to the "glut of Ph.D.s" garbage, which you can read more about here).  It's an economic fact that the high school diploma of the late 1960s has become the college degree of 2007; to be on an equal footing, then, it is "necessary" to get some kind of post-secondary degree.  I'm aware of the exceptions, but nine times out of ten the "exceptions" had a lot of other advantages that don't get covered in the "Bill Gates was a college dropout and look where it got him" stories.  And beyond the practical reasons, there is a kind of broadening of perspective that a college education provides–something which (though certainly possible) isn't nearly as easy to come by outside of the college environment.  By and large, you're better off with a college degree than without one (from where is a separate and not nearly as important a discussion).

But the problem with this, of course, is that it's based on the premise of affordability–and the truth is that many families can't afford the ridiculous (and they really are "ridiculous") costs of college.  The institution where I went (in part because of expense) was public, and since I was in-state I had reasonable tuition–$1500 a semester, I believe.  When I moved on campus for my final two years at the school the number shot up since I was paying room and board, but the cost was still under 10K a year–and even that was only possible because of a modest sum of money my grandmother had left me when she passed away (so much for the Montrachet, I guess).  I incurred a significant amount of debt going through graduate school, which I'm still paying off…but I managed, somehow, to make it through.  Here we had a partnership–my parents paid what they could, I paid what I had to, and it ultimately worked out.  If my parents had paid everything, I'd like to think I would have worked as hard, have taken it as seriously, have cared as much.  But it's hard to say for sure…I certainly knew my share of kids who were on a full ride from Mommy and Daddy and didn't give a damn about college.  Then again, I don't think they would have given a damn about anything–and I don't know if that was because of Mommy and Daddy or not.  All I know is that if I had to do it entirely by myself…well, I wouldn't have been able to, probably then or ever.

Sacrilege! cry the democrats.  Let the kids sort it out, you elitist fraud!  If you really cared about it enough, you should have paid for it! 

But see, here's the problem with the argument: to pay for it, I would have had to have enough money without the college degree, and that would have been exceedingly difficult.  Why?  Because I would only have been able to work at the jobs I could get without a college degree, and only advance as far in that job as I could without said degree; and thus, I would have had less money to pay for that degree.  No problem, you say; you save until you're ready.  Sure–if I was willing to wait four, five, six, ten years, I probably could have saved enough…though while trying to save over that span, the college costs would have continued to soar.  But even if I eventually had the money, would I have been able to go at age 25, 26, 30?  Or would I, like all of my friends, have been married by that time, or have kids, or be involved in various community activities, or something else which would make the prospect of a college degree unlikely?  My strong guess is that something else would have arisen by that time, and made my college chances slim at best.

But so what?  In that situation I would have had another life outside of college and been fine.  Well, sure; but what I did instead was to go to college, gain the benefits I've already mentioned, and then go on to those other things.  Saying that I wouldn't have missed something I never experienced doesn't change the fact that I missed it, and reduced the potential scope of my life in the process–and all because, in the original poster's scenario, my parents hadn't bought into the "myth" that they needed to send me to college.  The argument is a simple one: after college I could choose to do what I wanted with all potential paths available, including going on forums and calling college-sending parents believers in myths; before/without college I wouldn't have that same range of options. Ultimately, then, if democracy really is about preserving choice, then this merit-oriented, allegedly elitist idea–that college is beneficial–is actually the most pro-democratic belief of all in this entire debate.

Well, I'll be damned.  Maybe meritocracy and democracy can co-exist.  Almost makes you want to start buying into myths again, doesn't it?

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