Is college worth its growing price tag?

Last Thursday, President Levin announced that the term bill for the 2004-05 academic year would increase by five percent, from $37,000 to $38,850. Multiply this new tuition payment by four and you’ll find that over 155 thousand dollars will migrate from your parents’ pockets to Yale’s budget during your college career (or a lesser –yet still daunting — amount if you are receiving financial aid).

Given the shocking tuition payments that our college asks of us, it is only fitting that we ask a few questions of our college. What is the purpose of college? What makes college uniquely worthy of such an exorbitant sum? Indeed, what makes the college experience more deserving of our money than any of the thousands of other things that could be done with $155,000 (for example, sponsoring 539 Christian Children’s Fund kids for a full year)?

Almost everyone comes to college with a similar set of expectations: College broadens your horizons by introducing you to people from backgrounds that are different than your own. College allows you to “find yourself” and “grow up” in a way that the “Real World” does not. College classes teach you something eminently worthwhile, something that “opens your mind” and gives you “perspective.” College grooms you to be “a leader.” College is a place to have fun, make friends and meet a potential mate. In short, college promises a lot of wonderful things. But does it deliver?

Let’s begin with one of the most compelling “College Myths”, namely, that college broadens your horizons by throwing you in the mix with people from different backgrounds. Firstly, while there is often significant diversity in the college population (particularly at Yale), this diversity can be fairly superficial. A student who comes to Yale from India and a student who comes to Yale from metropolitan New York are likely to be far more similar than they are different. Indeed, both took the SAT or ACT, both attended a high school where they worked to get good grades, and both probably planned on going to college eventually. The fact is that most students at Yale come from communities where teenagers go to college and this college-oriented mindset makes diverse students more similar than we’d like to believe. Secondly, students often don’t take advantage of the diversity that does exist at college. Any Intro Pysch class will teach you that people tend to like people who are similar to them. Thus, college students tend to spend time with students who are similar to them — and not with students who are different. I’m not saying that there is no meaningful dialogue between people of different backgrounds; I’m just saying that more often than not it passes us by.

What about the idea that college gives us a unique opportunity to “find ourselves”? The implication of this college myth is that we will emerge from college with a better idea of our identity and our purpose. Yet is college better for “finding ourselves” than the “Real World”? In many ways, the ever-popular Ivory Tower metaphor rings true. At college the only adults that students have regular contact with are professors — and this contact is often not particularly personal or substantial. In college students need not worry about food or shelter — their two major concerns are getting good grades and “finding themselves.” Yet how can a person get a realistic handle on personal identity in an environment that is so radically divorced from reality?

I do not wish to suggest that college is a colossal waste of time. College promises many things — self-discovery, leadership, diversity, worldliness, friends, fun — and it does, to a certain extent, deliver on these promises. Yet as the number of American students who attend college continues to rise, I cannot help but feel alarmed. Surely, becoming a complete person does not require four years on a college campus. Surely, the colossal amounts of money that Americans shell out for college tuition could be spent in better ways. For better or worse, college is central to our society — it is the gateway to the professions, the focus of prestige and attention, the passport to a better way of life. But let us not fall into the trap of celebrating the status quo simply because it is the status quo.




Comments