I applaud Steven Starr (“Is college worth its growing price tag?”) for his question last Friday, Feb. 20, “What is the purpose of college?” Here, amid the believers, Steven asks us to question our faith — and that can be a healthy thing, especially when the cost of faith goes up 5 percent. Starr also pointed out, as he sees them, some “myths” about college: the myth of an opportunity to broaden one’s horizons by throwing oneself “in the mix with people from different backgrounds” and the myth of an opportunity “to find ourselves.”
While it’s hard to argue that many encounters at Yale are superficial, it’s equally hard to blame Yale. Where are Starr’s attempts to tap the very real, if not always evident, diversity on campus? And where are his efforts to get to know Yale’s stellar teachers on a more personal level? He doesn’t say. Instead, Starr has made a decision to remain in his comfort zone, and though this is understandable, it’s also not Yale’s fault.
So what is it we’re paying for when we go to college? Are we paying for momentous opportunities to make diverse connections and to reach profound epiphanies on our own terms? Or are we paying for ready-made friends and pre-packaged wisdom? If it’s the latter, what would separate college from a monastery (besides YaleStation.org/dating)?
As part of the Office of International Education and Fellowship Programs (IEFP) and the Yale Center for International and Area Studies (YCIAS), I help run the Richard U. Light Fellowship, which funds Yalies (and only Yalies) for language study in China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. To give a sense of how significant the fellowship is, this academic year alone we’re on track to give students an astounding $1 million! In some cases, a single award can total more than $55,000, which even after the 5 percent tuition increase is well ahead of what it would cost to study at Yale over the course of a year.
But these figures represent more than money; they represent opportunities — opportunities to broaden your horizons (picture: “people from different backgrounds”) and the opportunity to find yourself (before that, picture: finding the subway). Few other universities in the world even come close to offering these kinds of chances on this grand scale.
Then again, if you’re the type who lets such opportunities pass you by in New Haven, nothing magical is likely to happen in Seoul or Beijing, either. Such students often find themselves isolated (or worse, surrounded by like-minded Westerners) in a sea of diversity, unfulfilled by language teachers who somehow failed to open the students’ minds (and, presumably, to become their cafe confidants) because they were somehow paid to do so.
Perhaps unwittingly Starr identifies the problem himself. It’s not so much that such opportunities don’t exist but rather that “more often than not [they pass] us by.” Of course, opportunities don’t just pass us by. Often, we stand in place and wave them through. And this is a wonderful lesson, worth a good portion of those high fees. The steamroller of time won’t find a college degree, even an Ivy League one, particularly hard to roll over if the person holding one remains standing still.
True, many Yalies go to the other extreme and interpret “carpe diem” to mean they should join every class/club/team/band/council/committee/guild humanly possible to amass credits on their resumes like so many hundreds of rarely played songs on an iPod. But other Yalies seem to expect the world to come to them automatically. Not automatically, exactly — just after the checks clear.
The real world Starr seems to find more worthy of his (parents’?) money is coming fast for juniors like him, and so with it the sound of countless doors suddenly — irrevocably — shutting. Can and should Yale do more to make those doors wider and harder to close? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could apply for a Light Fellowship 10 years or more after leaving Yale? Sure, but that’s not the real issue. The real issue is that tuition is only an investment of money, and without similarly investing yourself, Starr is right: “College tuition could be spent in better ways.”
Kelly McLaughlin is the associate director of the Office of International Education and Fellowship Programs.