What exactly is college good for, again?

By Caitlin Kelly

Pratt's library -- with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus
Pratt’s library — with one of the many sculptures dotting the campus

Have you followed the “debate” begun (again) about the putative value of an Ivy League education?

Here’s former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in Salon:

In his new book, “Excellent Sheep,” Deresiewicz expands his argument into a full-on manifesto about the failures of the meritocracy. His timing is good. Ambitious families continue to arm their children with APs, SAT prep courses and expensive admissions advisors. At the same time, despite big financial aid packages, the student bodies at elite schools remain staggeringly affluent.

So do the schools. Yale has an endowment of some $20 billion; the University of Connecticut, 90 minutes down the road and with a student body three times as large, has an endowment one-sixtieth that size. As public institutions suffer round after round of cuts, Ivy League endowments keep swelling. When we speak of inequality, it’s not just in individual income where the disparities have grown starker.

And here’s a powerful op-ed  about the value of college from The New York Times’ Frank Bruni:

I’M beginning to think that college exists mainly so we can debate and deconstruct it.

What’s its rightful mission? How has it changed? Is it sufficiently accessible? Invariably worthwhile?

As the fall semester commenced, the questions resumed. Robert Reich, the country’s labor secretary during the Clinton administration, issued such a pointed, provocative critique of the expense and usefulness of a traditional liberal arts degree that Salon slapped this headline on it: “College is a ludicrous waste of money.”

Meanwhile, the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa were out with a new book, “Aspiring Adults Adrift,” in which they assessed how a diverse group of nearly 1,000 recent graduates were faring two years after they finished their undergraduate studies. About one-quarter of them were still living at home. And nearly three-quarters were still getting at least some money from parents.

But Bruni goes on to make some interesting (to me) arguments in favor of mixing things up on campus, as one of the increasingly few places left (in an economically and racially divided United States) where people can — and should, he argues — meet “the other”.

That might, for the first time, mean meeting someone covered with tattoos and piercings, or someone wearing head-to-toe designer labels.

It might mean working in class on a project with someone transgendered and/or someone happily married, even with a few children. Or someone deeply devoted to their religious life  — or someone fervently atheist.

I remember a preppy blond guy named Chris who was even then active in the Conservative party — my first (and useful) exposure to someone with strong, opposing political views.

Bruni writes:

We live in a country of sharpening divisions, pronounced tribalism, corrosive polarization. And I wish we would nudge kids — no, I wish we would push them — to use college as an exception and a retort to that, as a pre-emptive strike against it, as a staging ground for behaving and living in a different, broader, healthier way.

As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart. It’s at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process.

And college is the perfect chapter for diversifying friends and influences, rummaging around in fresh perspectives, bridging divides. For many students, it’s an environment more populous than high school was, with more directions in which to turn.

I also found this Times story — about how much effort selective American colleges are actually making to attract and retain lower-income students:

I think college-as-sorting-mechanism, as it often ends up being — at least in the U.S. — is a sad misuse of its potential for personal and intellectual growth.

I’m not embarrassed to admit how much I learned by attending the University of Toronto, a huge (53,000) and highly traditional university.

Not only about my subjects of study, but about Marxism, soul music, what it’s like to be married young. I learned it over coffee or at frat parties or while working on the student newspaper, from the people I met, the men I dated, the friends I made and my classmates.

I met the first gay people my age, male and female. (My high school may well have had some, but none were out.) Toronto is an enormous, diverse and cosmopolitan city, but even then I knew who I knew….and not much more than that. As it was meant to, college opened my eyes to other realities and ways of thinking and behaving.

My classmates arrived from homes wealthy and poor, from elegant estates and shared, battered downtown housing.


In my mid-30s, after moving from Canada to New York, I attended another school, The New York School of Interior Design. That experience was wholly different and I loved it. Teachers were demanding and wise, but also nurturing. Classes were small, making my experience pleasant and intimate in comparison to overwhelming and impersonal undergrad.

Now I’m teaching two classes at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, rated one of the 20 best schools in the Northeast U.S. I’m intrigued by the mix of students I see there, all of whom have chosen to attend a school focused on specific crafts and skills, from industrial design to fashion to writing to architecture. There’s a lot of green and purple and blue hair. Many of the women smoke.

One of the issues that I find really shocking is the skyrocketing cost of an American education; Pratt’s tuition is more than $41,000 a year while my alma mater, U of T, is now only $6,040 for my former course of study.

(I paid $660 a year. Yes, really.)

Colleges look so serious and authoritative. They can fail you in life-altering ways
Colleges look so serious and authoritative…don’t they?

If you are a student, what do you want or expect college to “do” for you?

If you’re a professor, how do you feel about the expectation that a college degree is meant as a ticket to a job?


19 thoughts on “What exactly is college good for, again?

  1. As a senior in his final year, I’m hoping college will lead me to a good job or internship while I try to write a novel that will become a bestseller and maybe allow me to write full-time. So far, it’s done just that. Though there are still eight months to see what happens.

  2. Good timing this. I’m in the middle if our college/career unit with my seniors. We are a five star high school recognized by US News & World Report, yet we have to really push to get our students to Go On (theme and program). Many kids will be first generation attendees of college. The American Dream has changed (my recent lecture) and students are unwilling to go into debt and not be guaranteed a job at the end of their efforts. I, instead, tell them “have a plan.” Do something after graduation. I have them watch The Last Lecture with Randy Pausch so they learn how to fulfill their dreams.

    1. That’s a really interesting POV — and thanks for sharing. I find the emphasis on “going to college” versus acquiring terrific work/life skills a really American phenomenon…as if any sort of vocational/technical/trades education is somehow “less than” when there are 1000s of jobs open and, after a few short years, plenty of well-paid work. I’m in awe of blue-collar skills and work, and the plumbers, electricians and others I know (and hire!) charge $100/hr or more. Very few college grads will ever command that (w/o a grad or professional degree.)

  3. I have been teaching freshman composition for the past 26 years in places as diverse as small, private religious colleges, a “flagship” selective public university and now a medium sized public university that mainly enrolls middle class students from our own region. But, I’m also the mother of a grad student, two current undergrads and a high school student. As a parent, I worry about my children’s debt and whether they will ever be able to make enough money to pay it off and still live, finally, escape the poverty of my parents and parents-in-law. Due to many years of adjunct teaching, I’m still saddled with debt myself. At the same time, all this seems somewhat divorced from what I actually do in the freshman writing classroom, where I am doing a lot of the things I’ve always done, i.e. trying to move a group of people from black/white adolescent thought patterns into broader, more nuanced views of the world. We read a lot , write a lot and, when I can get them off their cell phones, we talk about the world, other people’s ideas, even books on occassion. I don’t think, in an economic sense, what we are doing is rational, but I also have seen the growth that college inspires in students and I”m not willing to give that up. I do think we are moving into a more and more stratified college experience. The “public ivies” are pricing themselves out of range for the middle class students, to say nothing of the poor students. The schools they can manage to pay for will not allow them to rub shoulders with people outside their economic class.

    1. Good for you!

      This is my first yr teaching freshman writing (have taught college level and adults many times before, but more focused on journalism and never freshman.) I think one of the key values of college must continue to be exposure to new/different/challenging ideas, and a safe space in which to explore and debate them. If all one ever meets or sees are people who think the same way, you have no clue what diversity means — nor how to work with/in it.

      I have told my BFA students, from our very first class, how very, very, very competitive the writing world is, and how well-prepared they must be to compete effectively within it. I do not offer them some rosy, gauzy view! Their work is due at 3pm Tuesdays and I offer an F to those who miss that deadline. You get it, or you don’t; professional thinking and behavior can begin early.

  4. When I tried to get my 4,000 player strong soccer club to organize itself by Postal Code to reduce global warming and promote neighbourhood sports, I was told that the Club had chosen to retain city-wide teams to promote mixing between affluent and working class neighbourhoods.

    It took a long while for me to accept that as an intelligent trade-off, as I watched the endless stream of single occupant mini-vans careen about the city every night. Aside from its cost though, I have come to agree, that friendships are formed across many lines of separation, which is a good thing.

    At a $40,000 tuition, I’m not sure how much mixing is going on 🙂

    1. I wonder how many of my students, or any of their students are receiving significant financial aid which would allow them the benefit of a terrific and affordable education. I haven’t yet looked into those statistics, but imagine they are fairly readily available. From my first few weeks on campus, it’s hard to tell.

  5. I am always amazed when people do not see college as a coming of age. It is. Whether we find our true calling or not, we get the chance to find ourselves. Or maybe have our version of ourselves challenged. There’s so little space in our lives for transitions–why take this one away? It’s sorely needed. And while we’re at it, let’s add one in midlife. For all of those who want to take their earned wisdom and apply it . . .

    1. So true. It’s scary to leave home/family/friends/the familiar — but what better way to launch into adulthood? I really see this with my freshman students, two of whom came all the way from Europe. I admire their guts!

  6. i think the main lessons to learn are to be your own advocate, be self-motivated, and personally responsible. you have to learn to work with the system, with people, get things done, be where you need to be when you need to be, negotiate things, etc. – all that while studying your area of choice, navigating social situations, and eventually graduating. it’s a balancing act.

  7. I attended a private, Catholic university in the US. While I was on the lower income end of the student body, the campus wasn’t very diverse–largely white, upper-middle class and similar to where I grew up. It was also fairly secluded from the very diverse city it was in.

    Obviously, that it was a Catholic institution had a lot to do with the lack of diversity, but so many private institutions, where you will find that smaller, more intimate experience are religiously-affiliated or have a somewhat homogeneous population due to the astronomical cost. I still received an excellent education and I still managed to expand myself a lot in university, mostly because of my study abroad, but I also think it’s easy to remain insulated and steeped in the same sort of world view you’ve grown up with in these types of universities. Perhaps this is part of why America seems increasingly polarized–our educational institutions are just further entrenching us in our pre-existing views. Sometimes when debating an issue with friends and family, it feels like it’s not a mere difference of opinions, but of disparate world-views that separate us in a way that feels insurmountable.

    Sorry for the ramble. I guess I obviously also agree that a goal of higher-ed should be to expand people’s views, but I question how much that actually happens.

      1. Well, I did my M.A. at Concordia in Montreal, and it was completely different from my undergrad experience. Much, much more diverse. But also a much larger student population, secular, multi-lingual city, etc.

        But yes, I bet the more-accessible cost does increase diversity on Canadian campuses. Of course, the cost is going up here, too, so perhaps we’ll get the opportunity to test that theory… 😦

      2. A friend of mine’s daughter, here in NY, is dying to attend Concordia. I taught journalism there in 1988. Montreal is a much more fun city to be a student, I think, as the cost of rental housing is so much cheaper.

      3. Yes, Montreal is a great student city! Cheap housing, food, great culture. I highly recommend it! And even as an international student it’s still a bargain for an American!

      4. I know…I met my American husband (the first one) when he was sharing a $250/month (yes) enormous flat there with a room-mate — total housing cost in 1986, $125/month for a fun, safe neighborhood. His total med school debt, even as a foreign student unable to work, was only $40,000.

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