I started to write a blog post about the cost of higher education in America but my thoughts were all over the place and I really couldn’t come across as eloquently as I wished so I just decided to throw all my thoughts down and hope it made sense when I finished. (To those of you who are recent followers and are hoping that each new post features pretty pictures of vacations or food recipes, I apologize. We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming in just a bit.)
I remember what it felt like to graduate in a down economy with absolutely no job prospects in your field. I went to work at Pottery Barn, for chrissakes. But things changed and I found a job that I had been trained for and was in that career for nearly 13 years. And even though I stepped away from that career, what I’m doing now is also related to what I went to school for – maybe even more so. And because I live in the SF Bay Area and my life is so impacted by Silicon Valley, I have a hard time looking at the world and thinking there are no jobs for college graduates. Maybe not philosophy or history majors, but for a broad spectrum of others, yes. There is opportunity. Half of me feels like maybe they’re not trying hard enough, while the other half sympathizes. I feel like if someone like me who grew up so fucking poor it hurt can get a college education and pay off my loans, then maybe some of these middle class kids need to suck it up and know that it takes years to pay it off, but eventually you’ll get there and when you do it’ll be an awesome day.
But then I look at the cost differentials of what school costs today versus when I went (1995 – 2000) and it’s staggering. With schools cutting programs left and right, tenured track positions being done away with in favor of what amounts to indentured servitude by lower ranking staff, where is the money going? It sure doesn’t feel like it’s going to pay teachers or to better educate students. Sports? Likely, at least at Division I schools.
The cost of tuition + room and board at Pitt when I was a freshman was $17,000 for in-state students. That covered basically everything. Today, according to Pitt’s own cost estimates, it’s $32,000. I didn’t do the typical four year thing (I took five because my on-campus job paid for my part-time tuition one year), I only lived on campus for one year, and I had a number of grants my freshman and sophomore years so my costs were significantly lower than the $68,000 I could have left school with. (I think I owed somewhere around $30,000 when I entered the work force.) Today, an in-state Pitt student, living on campus, would leave school $128,000 in debt if they didn’t have scholarships and grants. That dollar amount is the number you used to consider when thinking about becoming a lawyer or something specialized that required significant extra schooling. Right now that’s just a regular four year college degree. Of course, I have thoughts about students who choose to live on-campus in student housing for four years and don’t do anything to offset those costs, but I can’t make life decisions for everyone.
So yeah, I can understand why going to college is so burdensome. BUT … I feel like in many cases (especially when you come from a small town or a place with very little diversity) the experiences a young person gets from college can be life changing, for the better. I think about the girl I was when I went in, and the woman I became when I left and I can’t imagine having missed out on the ways in which my experiences in school broadened not only my horizons but also my life. I met people I never would have known otherwise, learned about far off places and cultures that were nothing more than words on a map, and I got to explore how I really felt about things that were happening in the world in a place where self-exploration was encouraged instead of stifled.
On a personal level, I feel like I matured in a way that people I went to high school with who didn’t go away to school didn’t get the opportunity to. I look at people who never left, who never tried to broaden their horizons, and because I come from a place that was pretty closed-minded, I see a lot of closed-minded people. We all know that ignorance breeds ignorance and I strongly feel like college is a place – whether you go when you’re 18 or 30 – that helps cure a person of their ignorance. At least some of it. Again, this doesn’t hold true for everyone. I also know a number of people who didn’t go to college who I think the world of. They are wonderful human beings who I respect and admire. But in my world, I feel like they are the minority.
But how do you weigh the opportunity cost? Is it worth it to incur debt at such an astronomical rate simply for the chance to broaden your horizons? I think so, and I think there are ways it can be done. Junior/community college is a terrific option, or branch campuses instead of main campuses. Smaller schools with specialized curriculum.
I really hope that in the coming election to sorry state of the economics of higher education becomes a rallying point for voters. I know what you’re thinking. It’s not as important as say, job creation or addressing racism. But I think it’s tangential. You send a white kid from Whitesville to college and s/he’s going to interact with other races, going to meet people s/he likes and admires who s/he never would have thought and that’s going to impact his/her view on race and the way we treat POC in this country. You manage to send a poor kid from Nowheresville to school and they’re going to graduate with skills they wouldn’t have had if they’d stayed home ringing up orders at WalMart. It’s linked and it’s important.