On Cash and College

What is the purpose of a college education in 2016? I recently came across an interesting piece in USA Today by James K.A. Smith, a Christian philosopher who has grabbed my attention in the past year. His article engages proposals that Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton have made regarding the availability of a college education to American citizens. When discussing the veritable behemoth issue of costs, Smith addresses the underlying question so little asked today: why college at all?

college-degree-and-graduation-hat-300x300I’ve reflected previously on the observable tension between promoters of the liberal arts and the devotees of the manual trades. A father of four, I’m a laborer in the construction trades pursuing an undergraduate degree in theology with a psychology minor, so the question has haunted me for some time. Though I’m cash flowing my final year, I’ve still amassed a sizable student loan that begs for justification.

The return on investment for a business degree is more easily seen than a course of study in say, theology. Ahem. I note that this return isn’t guaranteed- a guaranteed financial return for a college degree in any field is surely an illusion today. But it’s not hard to say that most undergraduate theology majors aren’t moving into a lucrative job market.

In my experience, the course of study was worth it, finances notwithstanding. Studying theology in particular and the liberal arts more generally has profoundly shaped the way I view my work. I wasn’t studying theology to get one more qualification on my resume, or to open one more door for a promotion- I wanted knowledge. I needed to make sense of my chaotic (and, as I would learn to call it- idolatrous) inner life. I needed to develop a worldview that brought a sense of unity and coherence. I wanted to change who I was. I wanted to gain access to the history of ideas so that I wouldn’t be a slave to the thinking of the present.

Obviously, I have a lot of things I would have done differently. I wouldn’t have borrowed money when I could have cash flowed the expenses over a longer course of study. C’est la vie. My wife and I have lots of thinking to do about our children’s education. But that should probably come in another post.

So, why college? I’m intrigued by the question and our political discussions on funding and availability assume an answer. What’s yours?

One thought on “On Cash and College

  1. I have also been thinking about this topic a lot. My oldest child recently started an “early college” program. Basically, he attends the local community college tuition free and is earning his associates degree simultaneously with his high school diploma. I am thankful for this opportunity in so many ways. He wanted a change from the homeschool program that we had been doing. He has so far surpassed me in so many subjects that he had been basically self teaching for a few years and was ready for more structure and input than I could provide. He enjoys his classes. The downside? We don’t tend to value as highly the things that are simply handed to us. He doesn’t always work hard. These three years in college only cost our family the cost of books above and beyond the $150 stipend per term he is given (and any credit hours over 12). He considers it his “right” and not his “privilege” to receive this education. Needless to say we have had some interesting, if tense, discussions.

    College should be affordable, but if should cost us something. We value the things we have to work and sacrifice for. My $.02 anyway.

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