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The cost of college: A burden worth sharing?

College costs

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University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky wrote a piece for the blog last week that inspired comments both here and on Facebook.

In response to one such comment, Smagorinsky wrote this second piece on the cost and the value of a college education.

By Peter Smagorinsky

I got a lot of responses to the essay I wrote for the Get Schooled blog, School to work: Is it working? People took positions for and against, from lawyers defending their law schools and their preparation for practice, to people supporting liberal arts education regardless of work readiness.

One response has been on my mind more than others. It came from a parent who found the essay via Facebook and posted her reaction. She was concerned that her own teenaged children could not assume massive debt for something that didn’t prepare them for jobs. If college doesn’t provide a person with training for work, and if people have to borrow a great deal of money to attend, is it worth the debt they must take on for four years of study?

I think that her concerns are well worth considering for those of us who got our degrees in times when college was more affordable, because it was much better subsidized by government, and thus by taxpayers and businesses. My own parents were from urban blue collar families — my mom’s dad was a plumber, my father’s father an immigrant sign painter — but both attended college (with my father getting a doctorate in meteorology) and were frugal enough to send all five of their own kids to college. Although I borrowed money to attend graduate school, I was able to pay it back in relatively short order.

The times, however, were quite different in the degree to which states underwrote college education, and the degree to which lending policies were more favorable to students. Today’s financial landscape is much more severe, with funding for public schools and universities in a freefall, even as public monies increasingly support private schools and academies.

This diversion of public money for private education stands in direct contradiction to the state’s constitutional imperative that “The provision of an adequate public education for the citizens shall be a primary obligation of the State of Georgia. Public education for the citizens prior to the college or postsecondary level shall be free and shall be provided for by taxation.”

This shift in spending on public education, from kindergarten through graduate school, began with the Reagan presidency and has continued through both Democratic and Republican eras in both the U.S. and Georgia. The HOPE Scholarships, generous yet shrinking, are provided by lottery income, not taxation. College grows more expensive for individual students with every cut in education budgets in the Legislature. As costs and debt for individuals increase, questions about the purpose of a college education become more pronounced and consequential.

A friend of mine, Russel Durst, studied students in composition courses  at the University of Cincinnati, where he has taught since the 1980s. UC is an urban university that enrolls blue collar students, often the first in family to go to college. Russ himself is a guy from a working class family in the Pittsburgh area who got a Stanford doctorate and is now a leading expert on first-year composition courses in public universities.

Russ found that college students and college composition instructors often have very different goals for students’ education. Instructors typically hope to open students’ eyes to multiple perspectives, including many that are oriented to societal equity and justice. They teach writing by having students discuss and write about controversial topics, with the seeming expectation that students gravitate toward liberal social positions.

Students, however, from working class backgrounds enroll in college to advance their station in life, and often resent efforts to radicalize their politics rather than enhance their earning potential.

Although Russ’s study was not designed to get at the public funding of education, it directly addressed working class students’ purposes in attending college. The debt crisis was less severe in the late 1990s, when he conducted his research, than it is today. The hard-earned money that Cincinnati students put into tuition, however, was surely a factor in their concerns about getting what they were paying for.

Even though college does not necessarily prepare people directly for work, it is highly correlated with income down the road. This effect might follow from simple credentialing; it could produce connections and career networks; it may be a product of thinking skills and perspectives that are valuable in and of themselves; it might be a consequence of preparation for work skills.

College degrees are worth something, although the degree to which specific academic knowledge prepares one for paid labor remains an unsettled question and might vary from case to case.

But is it worth taking on massive debt?

I can’t answer that question for individuals and their families. What I can say with confidence, however, is that there is quite a cost to the deliberate, systematic public disinvestiture in education that we have experienced for nearly 35 years now. I’m sure that some readers will howl at the idea that taxation can lead to a higher quality society, in that taxation — that dreaded socialism — requires them to personally subsidize someone else’s potential to contribute to the greater good by lowering their tuition costs and thus improving their earning potential.

There is no doubt that I am out of step with those who oppose taxation, and I harbor no hopes of persuading dedicated fiscal conservatives that investing in education has a justifiable payoff in producing a better society.

The worries of the parent whose concerns prompted this essay, however, suggest the more college costs, the more of a pragmatic perspective it promotes. I say this as someone whose field, teacher education, is specifically designed to prepare graduates directly for teaching jobs, and is dismissed as irrelevant when it becomes too theoretical.

I also say this as one who believes in college as more than workforce preparation, which was the point of my original essay. The University of Georgia’s motto is Et docere et rerum exquirere causas, translated and later modified to read “To teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things.” Is that mission too abstract, or is abstract reasoning a sufficient goal for college studies? Is the mission worth supporting through taxation, or is that mission something that each individual should assume as a personal financial investment?

However you answer that question, you are making a value statement that requires sacrifice, either of yourself in incremental ways or young people in massive ways. The last three and a half decades suggest that most people are unwilling to give of themselves so that others may prosper. To me, that’s a very costly savings.