Many of today’s young people decide that a college education is not worth the time and treasure it costs.
Rejecting Higher Education
For previous generations, this might be something of a surprise—although it shouldn’t be. Colleges have spent the first quarter of the twenty-first century making their product—the degrees they award—more expensive and less valuable. Perhaps the real surprise should be that it took so long to realize that the transaction between colleges and students is such a bad deal.
A recent article in The New York Times Magazine describes the situation well. It indicates that 2009 may have been the high water mark for America’s universities. That year, seventy percent of the high school graduating class matriculated immediately after graduation. At the same time, seventy-four percent of young adults said that a college education was “very important.”
As of 2023, the percentage of young people going straight to college has declined to sixty-two percent—a decline of eight points. This decline is troubling but hardly indicates that the bottom has fallen out. Perhaps more important is that only forty-one percent of today’s young adults affirm the importance of a college education.
Higher Costs, Fewer Benefits
One explanation for this rapid decline of support for America’s colleges is economic. The cost-benefit calculation has shifted over the last few decades.
The cost side of the equation is especially concerning. According to the College Board, tuition and fees at state-supported four-year schools rose from $4870 in the 1992-93 academic year to $10,940 in 2022-2023. Prices at private schools went from $21,860 to $39,400 over the same period.
In its part, The New York Times reports that the College Board’s figures are on the low side. “Today the average total cost of attending a private college, including living expenses, is about $58,000 a year….[A]t the University of Michigan (a public university), tuition, fees and expenses for out-of-state juniors and seniors total more than $80,000 a year.”
Some might attribute those increases to inflation. However, the College Board factored that into their figures. The amounts cited reflect increases measured in real dollars. These increases led to an expansion in student loans, whose interest rates add significantly to the total cost.
The “College-Wealth Premium”
The benefit side of the calculation is no less dire.
The New York Times Magazine spent considerable space describing the conclusions of economic researchers working for the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis. They developed an index called the “college wealth premium.” It attempts to determine the effect that a college education has on the wealth that graduates eventually acquire.
The economists found that people who graduated from college before 1980 accumulated two to three times as much wealth as their peers with only a high school diploma. However, those who graduated after 1980 were only marginally better off than high school graduates. Moreover, the difference will continue to be small as they age. After the expense of getting a Master’s Degree or Doctorate, the outlook for those with graduate degrees was even worse. “Among families whose head is of any race or ethnicity born in the 1980s and holding a postgraduate degree, the wealth premium is … indistinguishable from zero.”
There are also reasons for the decline in the value of a college education that have little to do with economics. The colleges lost their sense of the purpose of an education.
Saint Thomas Aquinas is credited with stating one purpose of education. “The greatest kindness one can render to any man consists in leading him from error to truth.” This magnificent statement dovetails nicely with one from the pagan philosopher Plato. “The purpose of education is to give to the body and to the soul all the beauty and perfection of which they are capable.”
Holy Mother Church created the university during the medieval period to promote the three great transcendentals—truth, goodness and beauty. Until recently, that tradition was honored, even if seldom realized.
A mere twelve years ago, the famous Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner wrote a book reflecting these ancient and essential ideas. The Harvard Gazette enthused, “the ever-prolific Gardner remains upbeat in his latest book, “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed,” a contemporary look at how our conceptions of these three virtues have shifted over time. Yet, Gardner insists, these virtues remain the crucial bedrock of our existence—even in light of postmodern skepticism and the side effects of technological advances on our attention spans and ways of thinking.”
From a Catholic perspective, there were multiple flaws in Dr. Gardner’s analysis, but he was, at least, searching in the right direction.
Falsehood, Duplicity and Ugliness
Today’s academics have abandoned the effort.
The modern university no longer helps students find the truth, mainly because it denies that objective truth exists. That search requires humility. Today, a combination of arrogance and pride leads too many professors to substitute their favorite notions. They wrap this jumble in the jargon of pseudo-intellectualism and peddle that unholy mess to their students. Today, the collegiate mantra is “diversity, equity and inclusion” (DEI).
If truth is an endangered species, goodness is extinct. At least, students might find some discussion about the nature of truth, but today’s universities reject moral goodness as naïve and passé. Any person who openly embraces it will likely face ridicule or even intimidation.
Beauty fares little better. Art classes create abstract “statement pieces.” Modern university buildings range from brutalist nightmares to absurd flights of fancy to Soviet-style prison blocks. Many students and professors alter their appearance to shock and appall, if they care at all.
A Noble Hierarchy of Knowledge
In a letter to his wife, Abigail, dated May 12, 1780, the soon-to-be second President of the United States, John Adams, made a profound statement.
“I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Here, Mr. Adams acknowledges a hierarchy of learning. Studying practical matters may be necessary, but such disciplines are only a beginning. Then come those pursuits that combine academic theories with utility. Finally, come those arts that exist only in stable and elevated societies.
Many readers might wish that Mr. Adams had made a place for the things of God. Even so, the concept of a hierarchy of learning is still noble. Until the day before yesterday, such progression was primarily the province of the university. When the colleges abandoned it, students perceived something was wrong and are now losing interest.
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