It’s unfair to that wonderful, giant bird, but I can’t help but think that it may well be the best metaphor for how too many academics think about a college education. A case in point is this piece (which relies heavily on administrators, not surprisingly) about the value of a college education. It sounds very progressive and reasonable, on first reading:

As rising college costs have loaded more and more debt onto the backs of Americans, the return-on-investment conversation seems inevitable—­and perhaps prudent. But a single-minded focus on money pays little heed to one of the best aspects of the American higher-education system: its skill at developing curious, critical-thinking, culturally aware people. Those qualities may have greater financial rewards than critics realize.

How to Assess the Real Payoff of a College Degree,” Scott Carlson

The second sentence, about the “single-minded focus on money,” has no subject. Who is it, exactly, that is so concerned with money? The administrators who have raised tuition and their own salaries so often? The government regulators who want to find a way to rein them in and keep education affordable? Or the parents and students who are faced with huge inescapable debts exempt from bankruptcy laws?

I think that college should have broader purposes. I also think that work, even in the most narrowly defined sense, has broader purposes and draws on the so-called liberal arts skills much more than many have been willing to concede. The problem I have with this argument is that it ignores reality, especially the reality of how administrative actions have contributed to the problems they bemoan. They put money first, before anyone else did.

Doug Henwood summarizes the price of “business-oriented” administration: student debt has almost completely negated the income boost a degree use to confer. In fact, debt-ridden college students no longer earn more than their non-degree counterparts, once you subtract debt payments. Even more, Henwood says, this debt “is harming the broad economy, and will continue to for years to come.” It’s not just Wall Street that made the mess.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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