College Daze: Is Higher Education Worth The Cost?

studentloan3Is it worth going to college?

The answer used to be an unequivocal “yes” — college grads got better jobs and better pay than non-graduates. But the job market is different today. The cost of getting an education has risen dramatically, while the job market has shrunk. Many young graduates find themselves with thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of dollars in debt with student loans, and few lucrative job opportunities to pay them off.

High school grads are left in a quandary. Is it worth spending four years and $100,000 to earn a bachelor’s degree, just so you can compete for a $25,000-a-year entry-level job? Wouldn’t you be better off working for four years instead, getting real world experience and a head start on the your career?

It’s a sad choice to have to make. An education is priceless, whether it helps land you a job or not. Feeding your head, expanding your base of knowledge, is perhaps the most important function a thinking being can perform. Getting smarter and growing wiser are signs of a life well lived. It’s a shame to have to put a price tag on that.

But most people do. I remember a tear-filled confrontation with my parents during my freshman year at Rutgers University. I was flunking out, not because I couldn’t handle the academic load, but because I couldn’t wake up for classes. But I was enjoying college life…a little too much.

I sat in my parents’ living room, blubbering like a fool, trying to convince them I’d do better if I transferred to Seton Hall. But SH cost three times more than Rutgers, and my father couldn’t or wouldn’t pay it. Why should he? He’d already paid for two wasted semesters at Rutgers. Why should he pay triple for me to goof off at a different school?

He was right, of course. If my parents had made me pay for college myself, I probably would have seen it their way much sooner. Instead I transferred to Rutgers Newark campus, commuted to school and worked full time. I buckled down (somewhat), though I still relied on mommy to wake me up for class. I took summer courses and was able to get my degree in a semi-respectable four-and-a-half years, and graduate with a not-too-shabby 3.0 grade point average.

Higher education has become another consumer decision, like buying a house or car. You have to consider which school offers the best value for your budget. I endorse state universities and community colleges — places where you can get a feel for college life and earn credits toward your core curriculum without spending an arm and a leg. If you do well and want to be a rocket scientist, then you can transfer to Yale or Harvard, and assume the $200K student loan. You’ll probably be able to pay it back fairly easily.

But if you’re paying $200K to get an Ivy League degree in business, education, finance, or a variety of other milquetoast majors, you’re wasting your money. There’s not enough return on your investment.

Your degree won’t be worth the kind of job you’re likely to get (if you’re lucky to get one at all). That wasn’t always the case, but it is now.

A college degree is still important. But which college it comes from — and how much you pay for it — is becoming less so. Online universities offer endless opportunities for continuing education. Internships and apprenticeships can you teach you much more about your potential career, including whether it’s worth investing money in college or specialized training.

A passion for learning and a continual quest for knowledge should be essential traits for everyone.

But a college degree, not so much anymore.

College safe zones degrade higher learning

SafeZone_LogoColleges and universities were once hotbeds of creative ideas and free expression. Students used to question abuse, question authority. Today, students request “safe zones” so they can protest “offensive” Halloween costumes, and insensitive emails.

St. Louis University is one of several institutions of higher learning where designated safe spaces are a perceived necessity among minority and LGBT students. The SLU website reports:

“Homosexuality is an invisible diversity, both in its members and its supporters. The Safe Zone program helps to create a more accepting atmosphere on campus by providing visual statements of support and safe space. Many universities from Boston College, NYU, Georgetown, and Duke to Washington University, University of Illinois, and University of Missouri have already implemented similar programs.”

But safe zones threaten free speech. Missouri journalists were twice barred from covering college protests, according to USNews.com. Safe zones also create complex new job responsibilities for college employees. Professors worry about offending students in class with provocative texts or topics, while college administrators are being asked to step in and resolve conflicts among students instead of letting young adults fight their own battles.

I attended Rutgers University in the mid-80s, and there was nothing safe about it. (Except possibly the sex. It was the height of the AIDS scare, so people used protection.) There were many LGBT students on campus. Everybody knew where LGBT students hung out, and if you wanted to hang out with them, nobody judged you.

Safe Zone Image

For me, college was an unsafe zone. It was a place where I experimented, explored, and royally messed up. Hard partying landed me on academic probation after my first year, with a paltry 0.7 GPA.

That was when I learned to buckle down and take academics seriously. I learned the consequences of goofing off, and I took responsibility for my life choices. I still made time for tons of fun, but I learned to finish my schoolwork first.

And I did it well. By the time I graduated, I elevated my lowly 0.7 GPA to a respectable 3.0. It was hard work, but that’s the entire point. A good education should push you to your limits and beyond. If it’s easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. The most valuable lesson I learned in college was a simple one. Hard work pays off.

You can’t cut corners. If you do something, do it well. I learned how to be a major-league screw-up in college. But I also learned I could produce quality work if I set my heart and mind to it.

The college experience should be about taking risks, some smart and calculated, others blindingly stupid. Safe zones, language police, and other safety nets of the “bubble-wrap generation” take that risk away. We live in a “bully culture,” where everyone is a victim, even if they merely find themselves in “an uncomfortable situation.”

From Notre Dame University
From Notre Dame University

But uncomfortable situations are an essential part of life! How can young adults (or any living thing) develop and grow without occasionally stepping outside the comfort zone, if only to help define where exactly the comfort zone lies? Comfort zones change with time, age, and experience.

All colleges and universities are “safe zones” — places where young people can experiment, fail, succeed, and find out who they truly are without the emotional or financial responsibility of a home or family. There are still plenty of worthy causes for college students to protest in this country. This generation needs a better one than hurt feelings.

 

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