“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” For those who are unfamiliar with this quote, it is from the 1787 Northwest Ordinance and is engraved atop the State Street entrance of Angell Hall at the University of Michigan.
The quote clearly stresses the importance of “schools and the means of education.” The University Michigan is, without a doubt, one of the premier institutions of higher education in the United States, but it, like nearly all other American universities, has seen a dramatic rise in price of tuition over the past couple of decades. In fact, U of M’s current price, including room and board and estimated miscellaneous expenses, is $25,204 for in-state students and $50,352 for out-of-staters according to the office of financial aid. That’s a lot of money! And while private schools have also seen recent price increases, the cost of attending public universities has spiked the most. Since 2001, tuition and fees have increased at an average rate of 5.6% per year beyond the general rate of inflation according to CollegeBoard. In addition to Michigan, the University of California Berkeley is another public university that has experienced severe increases in cost of tuition and fees in recent years. But why?
One reason for the steep rise in the cost of a college education in recent years has been the reduction in subsidies paid by the state to its public universities. Both the state of Michigan and the state of California are prime examples of this trend. Following the recent economic crisis in the U.S., neither state can afford to put its minimal taxpayer dollars toward its state colleges. The funds just are not there. In turn, the universities are forced to raise tuition in oder to make up for the difference. Furthermore, as universities strive to compete with their counterparts around the globe, in terms of advancements in research, technology, excellent faculty, and top-of-the-line facilities, they have no choice but to up their prices. They claim they need the best professors, the best scientists, and the best researchers in order to produce graduates who can excel in the modern world.
But is the cost of a college education really worth it? Is a degree from the University of Michigan or UC Berkeley or Harvard really worth as much as $200,000? In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke expressed his views on the importance of knowledge:
“A sound mind in a sound body, is a short, but full description of a happy state in this world. He that has these two, has little more to wish for; . . . and I think I may say, that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education. ‘Tis that which makes the great difference in mankind.”
However, Locke died more than three centuries ago. There is no way for us to know whether or not he would support today’s American college education system. Maybe he would. Maybe he would say that you cannot put a price on education, that the rewards of a college education are definitely worth the cost. It is true that only about 4.5% of college graduates are unemployed, while the unemployment rate for those without a college degree is more than 12%. And the earning potential of college grads is far more than that of non-college graduates. On the other hand, maybe Locke would oppose the modern college education system. Maybe he’d think that graduating with a heap of debt just isn’t worth it. However, Locke’s idealist views about the importance of an education should certainly be considered when deciding if a college education is truly worth it.
Another theorist to consider when deciding on whether or not a college education is worth its hefty price is Louis Menand, author of the article “Live and Learn” in The New Yorker. Menand takes a somewhat different stance on the purpose of attending college, asserting that colleges benefit society by “sorting” the more intelligent from the less intelligent and the math types from the poetry types:
“Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.”
So what do you think? Is a college education today really worth all that dough?