The Price of Higher Education

College debt is at the forefront of so many conversations in our time, particularly recently, with the candidacy of Bernie Sanders and his (often misrepresented) idea that a university education should be “free” (i.e., taxpayer funded). As a squarely middle class American who has been carrying a small mountain of college debt for the last 14 years running, I believe I’ve got some perspective on this issue. My view is also colored by my experience as a teacher of high-poverty immigrant children, for whom the word “college” represents the dream of a better life, and not a de facto social club in which you spend fifty percent of your time fall-down drunk.

My alma mater (Cornell University) and my choice of degree (history) made my college investment a very risky one to many people. As a white male lacking financial support from my family, an undistinguished transfer applicant from a state school, and someone who did not live below the poverty line, my scholarship and grant opportunities were limited. In the end, despite working summers and living a frugal life, I had to borrow over ninety thousand dollars to complete my degree. I had no plans to use that history degree as a springboard to a “money” advanced education like law or business school. It was liberal arts grad school or bust. I was hearing the classic “What are you going to do with it?” question about my degree before I even undertook any classes, and those questions didn’t stop for the remainder of my time as a student.

If I had truly understood what the next fifteen years would be like (and who does at the age of 18?), I might have made a different decision. As I struggled to define and find my way (grad school went bust after I finished my MA), I lived often in material poverty, sometimes severely. When you are working two jobs to total thirty five thousand dollars (pre-taxes) in one year, and thirteen thousand of those (post-tax) dollars are earmarked for college loan repayment, the future can look pretty bleak.

Headstrong naivete carried me forward, and I’m very thankful that it did. My time at Cornell and in grad school hugely expanded my mind. It connected me with deep and incredible stories from many cultures and their histories, and it gave me expert guides to help me develop my appreciation and understanding in a way I never could have managed on my own. It connected me with deeply intelligent, thoughtful people I would never have met, across campus and across time. It trained me not in “what” to think anywhere near as much as  “how” to think: about civilization, history, art, and even just being human. When people ask me what it cost, I always hesitate, because it immeasurably enriched my life. In a very real sense, my education was therefore priceless.

There was a ‘hard dollars’ price, of course, and it has only increased since my graduation. At the time (2001), a year’s education at Cornell was about thirty two thousand dollars. From what I’ve read, in the span of the last 15 years it has grown to the staggering amount of about fifty thousand dollars. There is something wrong in that, certainly; there is no way the real cost of delivering a college education has gone up 60% in that time frame. When I reflect on my own experience, that total would certainly have scared me off. Even my 18-year-old naive self would have been too intimidated to sign on: and that would have been a sad thing, I think.

My education has made me a better man and a better citizen. It enriched my understanding of world, national, and community affairs, but it also enriched very simple things, like a walk alone in the woods during winter time (when I had very few earthly comforts indeed), when I could recall my Thoreau, take a deep breath, and get the fire of my mind going. What if I had been “priced” out of all that? What if my students are decisively priced out of it? Yes, there are scholarships, but not for everyone. Is it truly “radical” to suggest that for the ambitious young mind, for whom “a better life” for themselves and their families is the highest goal, the only worry about higher education in a great country like ours should be the academic standard of admission? Washington politicians spend most of the election year talking about how a thriving middle class is the foundation of any sound economy: what then of the legions of aspiring middle class citizens who are exiting college with the equivalent of a full-blown mortgage obligation?

I am a firm believer in hard work and join my grandfathers in my suspicion of ‘handouts.’ I like the old saying “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” Government subsidies cause a lot of heat for that very reason. Why should the anonymous taxpayer be expected to hand out fish left and right? But I feel differently about higher education. My college experience was an irreplaceable kind of training.

When I think of the little good I have managed to do in the world and the mindset that enabled me to imagine how to do it, my education is inextricably bound up with it. I was taught to fish in the richest and deepest waters of all. When I look around my classroom at so many of my students (who are scared already at age 12-14 of college tuition prices), I wonder if it isn’t crazy to suggest that the price of that teaching is a price worth all of us chipping in to pay.

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