Education Opinion

The $100,000 Question

By Susan Graham — December 20, 2007 3 min read
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Before I got distracted by chimps who are arguably smarter than college students (as determined by the single measure of the ability to sequence randomly placed numerals), I was questioning the disconnect between the public concern that young people lack financial literacy, and a public education policy that insists on rhetorical mathematics at the expense of applied mathematics. Consumer Math just doesn’t have the resumé cachet of Trigonometry, and it seems our high schools are more concerned about preparing kids for college than preparing them for life. My question from two weeks ago is back on the table:

Your own 18-year old comes home and asks you to be his co-signer on a note so he can take advantage of a great investment opportunity. He's not really sure why this would be a good investment, but all of his friends are investing so he should, too. He's not really sure how he would repay the note, but he is sure it's going to be worth the required $100,000. What would you say?

Of course the investment we are talking about is a four-year college degree. It takes most young people five years to graduate, so with tuition, fees, books, and living expenses (including health insurance and other miscellany) $100,000 is a very conservative figure. However, my concern is not whether a college degree is overpriced. I am more concerned that it is simply the wrong investment for many of our young people.

The first question that needs to be asked is “Why do you want to go to college?” And the answer is likely to be, “So I can get a good job and make good money.” The crass commercialism of this response is enough to cause the denizens of academia to cringe, and with good reason. The assumption that the purpose of a college degree is economic advancement is a major misunderstanding. While a college degree may act as gatekeeper for entry into some jobs, it does not guarantee a well paying or highly rewarding career upon graduation. (Just look around - there’s plenty of evidence. Try the mall.)

The second question probably ought to be “What sort of work is it that you expect college to prepare you to do?” And the answer is often, “I don’t know yet.” Our education system pushes eighth graders into Algebra I, rather than Consumer Math, because all students should be prepared to apply to a four-year university. But there’s a terrible disconnect between structuring a 13-year old’s education around college preparation (an option that less than half of them will eventually chose) and then sending students to college with the mindset that their junior year is soon enough to declare a major. Too many students spend four years in high school with no goals other than “getting into a good school.” The next four or five years are focused on “getting out with a degree.” Plenty of what. Not much why.

Is anyone else old enough to remember the 1967 classic film, The Graduate? Dustin Hoffman portrays Benjamin Braddock, who has recently earned his Ivy League degree. As he floats in the family pool, his father questions and Ben responds:

Ben, what are you doing? Well, I would say that I'm just drifting. Here in the pool. Why? Well, it’s very comfortable just to drift. Have you thought about graduate school? No. Would you mind telling me then what those four years of college were for? What was the point of all that hard work? You got me.

Back in the 60’s we understood Ben Braddock was a rebel. We didn’t realize he was a prophet. Somewhere along the way, education has morphed into something like a video game where the point seems to simply be getting to the next level. In the end, the reward for playing the game may be elusive, but the investment in time and money is very real. Then the college game is over, and our young people discover they don’t really know why they went there or what they went for.

I think college is grand. I loved it as an undergraduate. I loved it as a graduate student. I still take a class every year or so just for the joy of it. But (and it’s a big but), who decided that the sole purpose of high school is preparation for application to a four year college? Are there other ways to win? Have we been truly responsible? Have we fairly informed young people about their choices? Or have policymakers and educators imposed a single game plan on young people, their parents and the general public?

Why do we want them to go to college? It’s a $100,000 question that all too often begs an answer.

So you ask, “What should they do instead?” Stay tuned.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.