My old college alma mater once again has sent a mailer informing me of an opportunity to send a donation. Once again I’ll forgo the opportunity. I appreciate my experiences there, but I paid for them once and will leave it at that.
My years at GWU in truth were rewarding ones. Not financially. It just so happened that that my subsequent work required no degree and was utterly unrelated to anything I had encountered in college. But college did offer something: it pointed out to me just how much I didn’t know about how many things. My classes provided modest amounts of information about this subject and that, of course, but far more importantly they provided a framework for learning more on my own should I be so inclined. Without such a framework, it is difficult to know where to start. That has been of lifelong value. For this reason alone I recommend the experience to anyone who can afford it. For most people who attended college at that time (I was an outlier) the degree was financially valuable too, at least in the long run. A degree – almost any degree – from that era has been associated with higher lifetime earnings. Besides, college years were fun in other ways.
Most people enjoy their college years, of course, often primarily for reasons less associated with academics than just with being in their late teens and early 20s. A line from Gregg Araki’s cult scifi/college film: “College is just an intermission between high school and the rest of your life – four years of having sex, making stupid mistakes, and experiencing stuff.” For many this apparently is all there is to it. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses describes a look at 3000 students on 29 American campuses – a large sample. Among the findings: after two years 45% of the students were no more knowledgeable or capable of critical thinking than when they graduated high school; even after a full four years 36% showed no improvement over high school. The students in the survey studied only half as much as students four decades earlier though somehow they maintained an average overall grade-point average of 3.2. Professor Arum of NYU, lead author, calls the numbers “kind of shocking.” There has been one noteworthy increase: cost. Tuition in inflation-adjusted dollars has doubled since the 70s – in some cases much more than doubled. So have associated costs such as board and books. Accordingly, the net financial rewards to a degree have become less certain. Degrees in engineering and the hard sciences still pay off, even with higher student debt, but a liberal arts degree (like mine) is far more problematical, with unemployment rates among graduates double that of the science majors. A recent Brookings Institution report notes the importance of distinguishing among degree types when asking “Is college worth it?” (Their answer: overall yes, but in some categories not necessarily.)
Do I have any advice for anyone college-bound who does not plan to pursue a hard science? Yes. Don’t go to college for the money, because there might not be any. There might be less. Do it to try to become a better rounded person. If that outcome doesn’t seem probable or, if achieved, an adequate return on the investment, maybe one should drop the idea and look in the want-ads instead.
Even though they were during the last bloom of hippiedom and psychedelia, my college years were a bit less weird than this. Kaboom (2010) trailer: