There was a time, not so many years ago, when college presidents bemoaned their inability to attract much public attention to what they were doing. Ah, for the good old days! We now receive attention from every quarter, and more advice—and criticism, some of it rather hostile—than we know what to do with. We are suffering from a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.”
Consider the range of opinions expressed in the following four comments. An editorial in USA Today (June 4, 2014) includes the following quotes:
“Colleges are able to increase costs without consequence largely because easy access to federal aid assures them a steady supply of students, so debt keeps piling up, which is not just a problem for the students. Taxpayers are vulnerable as students default, for instance, and home building is stifled as debt-laden young people resist taking on mortgages.”
My point in illustrating the current level of mostly negative commentary about higher education isn’t to elicit sympathy for the plight of college presidents. We are expected to deal with whatever comes our way, and we are well compensated for our presumed ability to meet the challenges of running complex organizations. Instead, my point is that the conversation about higher education has become a Tower of Babel—voices that talk past each other, advocating positions that are irreconcilable, and, in the process, creating confusion and mistrust.
College presidents have contributed to this problem by being, as a group, far too hesitant to weigh in on higher education’s strengths and weaknesses. Our collective timidity has allowed the conversation about higher education to be taken over by people with different agendas, and to degenerate into name-calling and finger-pointing, when what we need is clear thinking and analysis on a topic that is generally regarded as the bedrock of our civilization: the education of our children.
However, in the absence of much leadership on these issues from college presidents, it is gratifying to know that there are still nuggets of quality discussion coming from current and former academics. A good example is a lengthy article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 19, 2014) by William Deresiewicz that is nominally a critique of the new documentary Ivory Tower, a film that deals with the current state of affairs of American higher education. Deresiewicz makes the telling point that “Few who talk about college in public understand it, and few who understand it talk about it.” As a once-over-lightly treatment of the entire issue, Deresiewicz’s article is well worth reading.
On the question of “is college worth it?” at any given moment discussions are under way on four overlapping but distinct issues that affect how that question is answered. Further complicating the matter is that these discussions are frequently full of factual error. Is it any wonder that parents are confused and angry as they consider the pros and cons of sending their children to college?
I’ll analyze these four issues individually, separate fact from fiction within each, and then I’ll endeavor to construct a reasonably coherent answer to the question of whether college is worth the investment. Here are the issues:
We take on the first issue next week.