Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Parsing “Is College Worth It?”

One of my favorite classroom exercises -- I didn’t invent it, but I used it -- involved a close reading of “Mary had a little lamb.”  It’s a surprisingly ambiguous sentence, if you pay attention.  For example, what does “had” mean?  Does it mean “once, but no longer?”  “Ate?”  “Gave birth to?”  “Copulated with?” And in “a little lamb,” what does “little” mean?  Just a few bites?  A lamb that was itself small?  Or modestly endowed?  Shorn of context, it could mean that she owned a small lamb, or that she ate a few lamb mcnuggets, or that she gave birth to a baby lamb.  Context matters.

In the case of Mary and the lamb, the implications of getting it wrong are probably trivial.  Maybe she’s a sympathetic shepherd, or maybe she’s a gourmand, or maybe she’s a sick puppy in her own right.  She’s fictitious, so it doesn’t matter.

But in looking at “Is college worth it?”, the possible meanings matter.  Getting this one wrong would have real impact for generations.

What do we mean by “college?”  How do we measure “worth?”  What are the alternatives?  And who are we talking about, anyway?

From what I’ve seen, the answers to each of those will inform the answer to the original question.

Does “college” refer to a completed degree at a public institution, or to a year with nothing to show for it at an expensive private institution?  Does it refer to all post-secondary education, whether a medical billing certificate or a Ph.D.?  Does it refer to a well-known, accredited, national for-profit?  Perhaps to an obscure, unaccredited, local for-profit?  Or do we really mean “someplace prestigious” (as in the angst-ridden pieces written by kids dreading the prospect of having to settle for, say, Bucknell)?  If we know what we’re talking about, frequently, we’d use the plural, since so many students attend more than one college before graduating.  But I’ve never seen the plural used in this context.

“Worth” is usually assumed to refer to money, though it’s also sometimes used to refer to “the college experience.”  I haven’t seen it used to refer to occupational preferences, which is weird, since so many occupations require a degree, or sometimes several.  Yes, it’s possible to make a good living without a degree, and some people do.  But some of us choose occupations because they allow us to do the work we want to do.  That’s both a privilege and a sacrifice.  It’s why so many people go into academia, even though the chances of making the big bucks are low.  It’s the work they want to do.  If the work you want to do requires a degree (or several), and you’re able to do that work by virtue of those degrees, then it may well be “worth it,” even at salaries that wouldn’t initially impress.

And “worth it” for whom, exactly?  Are we talking about students, employers, or taxpayers?  And which ones?  How do we account for indirect benefits, such as show up in the typically higher property values in college towns?  (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, compare house prices in, say, State College, PA, to house prices in any of the surrounding towns.)  If I remember my Econ 101 correctly, higher property values suggest greater interest in living there.  Those expressed preferences must be based on something.  If education were a purely private good, we wouldn’t see those spillover effects.  Hint, hint.

At this point, we have the most highly educated population we’ve ever had, and the job market is both weak and stratified.  Blaming the latter on the former is just sloppy thinking.  If the real root of the question is frustration with high student loan burdens in the face of a weak job market -- and it is -- then address the weak job market and state support for higher ed.  Hell, while we’re at it, let’s take a good long look at the stratification element, too.  Why, exactly, do degrees “pay off” more for white people than for African-Americans, on average?  And if we don’t think that’s okay, what, exactly, are we going to do about it?

Is college worth it?  Be specific.  Otherwise, the answer will be no more real than Mary’s lamb.