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Is College Worth It?

Student debt is suddenly spurring the once unthinkable debate: Is college necessary? Of course the answer is no. But who needs it and who should pay for it are complicated questions.

Arendt herself had an ambivalent relationship to academic culture. She never held a tenure-track job in the academy and she remained suspicious of intellectuals and academics. She never forgot how easily professors in Germany embraced the rationality of the Nazi program or the conformity with which Marxist and leftist intellectuals excused Stalinism. In the U.S., Arendt was disappointed with the “cliques and factions” as well as the overwhelming “gentility” of academics, that dulled their insights. It was for that reason that she generally shunned the company of academics, with of course notable exceptions. A free thinker—she valued thinking for oneself above all—she was part of and apart from the university world.

We plan to keep the discussion about college and debt going on the Arendt Center blog. Here are a few thoughts to get the debate going.

First, college is not magic. It will neither make you smart nor make you rich. Some of our best writers and thinkers somehow avoided writing five-page papers on the meaning of Sophocles. (That of course does not mean that they didn’t read Sophocles, even in the Ancient Greek.) And many of the most successful Americans never graduated or attended college. On the other hand, many college grads and Ph.D.’s  are surviving on food stamps today. Some who attend the University of Phoenix will benefit greatly from it. Many who attend Harvard squander their money and time. Especially today, college is as much a safe path for risk-averse youth as it is a haven for the life of the mind or a tasseled path to the upper classes.

Second, College can be a transformative experience. As I prepare to say goodbye to another cohort of graduates at Bard, I am reminded again how amazing these students are and how much I learn from them every year. I wrote recently about one student who wrote a simply stunning meditation on education. Today I will be meeting with two students about their senior projects. One is a profound, often personal, and yet also deeply mature exploration of loneliness in David Foster Wallace, Hannah Arendt, and Martin Heidegger. The other is a genealogy of whistleblowing from T.E. Lawrence to Bradley Manning, arguing that the rise of whistleblowing in the 20th century is both a symptom of and a contributor to the lost facts in public life. Both are testaments to the fact that college can inspire young adults to wrestle meaningfully and intelligently with the world they must confront.

Third, Most students do not attend college because they want to. Of course some do and I have enormous respect for those who embrace the life of the mind that college can nurture. I also respect those who decide that college is not for them. But the simple fact is that too many college students are here thoughtlessly, going through the motions because they are on a track. College has become a stepping stone to a good job which is a stand in for a good life. Nothing wrong with that, but is it really worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and four years of your time simply to get a credential? College students are young and full of energy. Too often they spend four of their most energetic years studying things they don’t care about while they sleep late, drink a lot, and generally have a good time.  This cannot be the best use of most young people’s time.

Fourth, it is not at all clear that college is a good investment. There is no limit of students who tell me that taking out debt for an education is always a good investment. This is usually around the time they want to apply to law school or graduate school. And I can only repeat to them so many times that they are simply wrong. Finally, the press is catching up to this fact, and we are treated to a daily drumbeat of stories about the dangers of student debt. College debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 Trillion, more than credit card debt (although far smaller than mortgage debt).  The problem is widespread, as 94% percent of those who earn a bachelor’s degree take on debt to pay for higher education — up from 45 percent in 1993. And the problem is deep: The average debt in 2011 was $23,300.  For 10% of college graduates, their debt is crippling, as they owe more than $54,000. Three percent owe more than $100,000.

The most egregious debt traps are still the for-profit colleges, which serve the working classes who cannot afford more expensive non-profit colleges. These schools prey on the perception, partly true, that career advancement requires a college degree. But now even public universities and private elite colleges are increasingly graduating students with high debt loads. And then there are law schools and culinary schools, which increasingly graduate indebted and trained professionals into a world in which does not need them.

he result is as sad as it is predictable. Nearly 1 in 9 young graduate borrowers who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years. This is about double the rate in 2005. The numbers vary: 15% of recent graduates from for-profit schools are in default. Also 7.2% of public university graduations and 4.6% of private university graduates are defaulting. Each of these groups requires a separate analysis and discussion. And yet overall, we are burdening way too many young people with debts that will plague them their entire lives.

Fifth, to defend college education as a good investment is not simply questionable economically. It also is to devalue the idea of education for its own sake and insist that college is an economic rather than an intellectual experience. One unintended consequence of the expansion of college to a wider audience of strivers is that a college education is decidedly an economic and bourgeois experience, less and less an intellectual adventure. Was college ever Arcadia? Surely not. For much of American history college has been a benefit reserved for the upper classes. And yet to turn education into a commodity, to make it part of the life process of making a living, does further delimit the available spaces for the life of the mind in our society.

Sixth, college is not necessary to make us either moral or enlightened citizens. College education does not make us better people. There are plenty of amazing people in the world who have had not studied Aristotle or learned genetics in college. The United States was built on the tradition of the yeoman farmer, that partly mythical but also real person who worked long days, saved, and treated people honorably.

Morality, as Hannah Arendt never tired of pointing out, is not gained by education. Or as Kant once pointed out to a certain Professor Sulzer in a footnote to his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, morality can only be taught by example, not through study. Arendt agreed. She saw that many of those who acted most honorably during WWII were not the intellectuals, but common people who simply understood that killing neighbors or shooting Jews was inhuman. What is more, it was often the intellectuals who provided themselves and others with the complex and quasi-scientific rationalizations for genocide. To think rationally, and even to use a current buzzword, to think critically, is no barrier to doing evil. Critical thinking—the art of making distinctions—is no guarantee of goodness.

Seventh, college cannot and should not replace a failed primary and high school system. Our primary schools are a disgrace and then we spend a fortune on remedial education in community colleges and even in four-year colleges, trying to educate people who have been failed by their public schools. We would do much better to take a large part of the billions and billions of public dollars we spend on higher education and put them towards a radical restoration of our public grammar and high schools. If we actually taught people in grammar schools and pushed them to excel in high schools, they would graduate prepared to hold meaningful jobs and also to be thoughtful citizens. Maybe then a college education could then be both less necessary and more valuable.

Bard College, which houses the Hannah Arendt Center, has been engaged for years in creating public high schools that are also early colleges. The premise is that high school students are ready for college level work, and there is nothing to prevent them from doing that. These Bard High School Early Colleges are public high schools staffed by professors with Ph.D’s who teach the same courses we teach at Bard College. In four years, students must complete an entire four-year high school curriculum and a two-year college curriculum. They then receive a Bard Associates Degree at graduation, in addition to their high school diploma. This Associates degree —which is free— can either reduce the cost of graduation from a four-year college or replace it altogether.

Early colleges are not the single answer for our crisis of education. But they do point in one direction.  Money spent on really reforming high schools and even primary schools will do so much more to educate a broad, racially diverse, and economically underprivileged cohort of young people than any effort to reform or subsidize colleges and universities. The primary beneficiaries of the directing public money to colleges rather than high schools are Professors and administrators. I benefit from such subsidies and appreciate them. But that does mean I think them right or sensible.

We would be much better off if we redirected our resources and attention to primary and secondary education, which are failing miserably, and stopped obsessing so about college. Most college graduates, wherever they go, will learn something from their four or more years of classes.  But the mantra that one only becomes a full human being by going to college is not only false. It also is dangerous.

-RB

Posted on 17 May 2012 | 3:08 pm

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