David Hoppe

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:: What is college for?

Training or education

By David Hoppe

Several times a year I receive messages from the college I attended importuning me for money. These messages are all pretty much the same. They talk about the quality of the education my alma mater provides and how donations from people like me are necessary to ensure that this quality continues.

I haven't sent back so much as a dime.

It's not because I had an unhappy college experience. On the contrary, the education I received there was excellent. I met great teachers and made lasting friendships. Today, when people ask me if I would recommend the school I attended, I do so gladly and without reservation.

But the constant fund raising bothers me. It bothers me because it seems to reflect a premise held throughout American higher education that colleges and universities must constantly grow, add on and build things in order to be relevant. Some new performing arts center, fitness facility, student life center or lab is always in the works. The campus I knew, for example, is barely recognizable today.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. If education teaches us anything it's that change is inevitable. Not only that, in almost every case, these changes represent material improvements to previous facilities. It seems mean-spirited to be against these things, especially when college administrators assure us that the kids really want them.

The trouble is that at the same time these new buildings have been going up, so has the cost of a college education. According to Money Magazine, college tuition has risen higher over the past 20 years than any other product or service, including gasoline and health care. Families are paying over 439 percent more for college today than they did in 1982. This means that more students are taking out loans to pay for college. The average student debt at graduation is over $20,000; many families are in hock for $50,000 or more.

The good people at my alma mater assure me that they are working to contain costs and provide sources of financial aid to students. I believe them. But I am also troubled by the automatic assumption that higher costs are justified and that the problem is finding the money to pay for them.

It's hard not to conclude that colleges and universities see themselves as exceptionally privileged players in our society. Since the end of World War II, the college degree has been universally identified as an essential key to success in American life. Statistics are routinely quoted like scripture to remind us how much more someone with a diploma will make in a lifetime than their peers who go without. Since the Baby Boom, college has also become a rite of social passage, something that middle class kids are simply expected to do.

Seriously questioning the value of college is a middle class taboo, in spite of the increasing inability of recent college grads to find employment in anything like their chosen fields. Rather than challenge the cost-benefit ratio of a college education, many grads enroll in graduate schools, hoping that more college will make up for a lack of real world opportunities - or, at least, put off the day their student loans come due.

But this taboo appears to be waning. The latest round of college graduation ceremonies set off a wave of commentary in the media about the pros and cons of college that generally took this form: if you majored in a technical field you were golden; if, on the other hand, your degree was in the liberal arts, you were probably screwed. College still packs a punch, in other words, to the extent that it is used for career training.

College-as-training has always been the point for many students. For a large number of other kids, though, a college education has represented a constellation of experiences - both in and outside the classroom - aimed more at preparation for life outside the reach of sheltering institutions. These kids may not have been trained, but they were educated.

There is, unfortunately, less and less tolerance for this kind of education - especially when it comes with a price tag that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Given the relentlessly upward push of college costs, it's no wonder students and their families are more focused than ever on the likely return on their investment.

This is practical. But the cultural implications are profound. To the extent we require students to think of education as the training necessary to plot a career they may only understand at first in terms of its immediate earning potential, we encourage a conformity that puts cost ahead of value. The results of such calculated ambition aren't encouraging.

From Tiger Woods to Anthony Weiner, we can see what happens when smart and driven people are turned loose in a world that's more complicated than their limited, albeit powerful, experience enables them to grasp. We wonder how people who have it all can be so crass. Maybe it's because they were trained instead of truly educated.