By Peter Augustine Lawler
The president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, was asked by The Wall Street Journal to defend the skyrocketing cost of attending her university. The total residential cost, now $60,000, has risen much more quickly than the rate of inflation.
She assures us that not only Harvard but the other relatively nonelite private, residential colleges remain “worth it.” She reminds us of the return in “lifetime earnings” and “intellectual development.” But anyone would immediately think there might be cheaper ways of getting both. And being saddled with mega-debt, it’s often said, can drastically limit the options of a graduate of ordinary means in either choosing an entrepreneurial opportunity or pursuing graduate or professional education.
Meanwhile, President Obama reminds us that there are all sorts of technical jobs available for those well trained but without a college degree that pay more than those offered to graduates with degrees in art history. I’m all for students being able to major in art history, and I’m told they do better than the president–following, ironically, the lead of the humanities-disparaging Republican governors–seems to suggest. (It’s true he didn’t join them in going after women’s studies.) But it’s very risky business to pursue one’s humanities dream while borrowing to meet Harvard’s cost. It’s more risky still, of course, to borrow to attend to school of a lesser reputation. Just having the Harvard “brand” on your art history resume might well be worth a lot. But there are a lot of less valuable brands that cost about as much.
President Faust goes on to explain what Harvard offers that costs so much: small classes, intensive student research, and enhanced student services that help students with, for example, their alcohol and health issues. Anyone might say that each of those amenities might be worth cutting if the cost could be driven way down, and none of them is worth taking out a sizeable loan. Small classes are typically much better, but they’re not necessarily better. And how much are they really worth to a student focused on his future? Undergraduate research, some say, can be a sort of gimmick that causes undergrads to make the mistake of slighting what any educated person should know about a particular field of inquiry by incentivizing specializing way too early and often way too trivially. Undergraduate research is not always that, of course, but it’s overhyped when taken to be an essential or even the most memorable part of the college experience–outside, at least, of the experimental sciences.
And, of course, I don’t have to tell you that college can’t be justified as being for helping young people cope with their problems concerning substance abuse or self-esteem or diet or exercise or whatever. I won’t go down the road of exploring the reasons for the expensive expansion of student affairs staffs. I won’t deny that they make useful contributions to students’ development. But many of the support they now provide is psycho-trendy, infantilizing, and surely not indispensable. Too much emphasis, surely, is now placed on student satisfaction and emotional well-being, whereas the older and cheaper focus was on student virtue and self-reliance.
Looking at the actual content of a college education in the humanities these days, all President Faust can offer that it “teaches students about the rest of the world and opens their eyes to other cultures.” Knowing different worlds and cultures, apparently, is the precondition for “imagin[ing] a new world.” There’s some truth, of course, in what she says. But there’s not that much. She makes the humanities seem to be about experiences I could so easily have on my own. The humanities in her eyes seem to have nothing to do with knowing about my world, its culture, literature, history, politics, religion, and so forth Studying the humanities isn’t, for her, about knowing who I am and what I’m supposed to do as a being born to love and die. By being too much about diversity, difference, and change, her humanities give me no point of view by which to determine the changes people who live in the truth and are morally responsible should believe in. Students of art history, of course, also aren’t all about change, but about what beauty is wherever it is found. By implicitly pitting the diversity of the humanities against the rational universalism of the sciences, President Faust makes it seem that only science is a serious and disciplined enough pursuit to be worth what Harvard costs. President Faust goes on to concede, in effect, that Harvard and other private colleges aren’t worth “the sticker price,” at least if paying it causes the student real economic pain.
The sticker prices, she reports, are going up but “the actual net cost of attendance is going down.” What that means is students of modest means pay no tuition at all, and more than half of Harvard’s students get some sort of discount. So the average cost for the 60% of students on financial aid is $12,000, while the cost, apparently, to the 40% not on financial aid is $60,000. It’s hard not to conclude that, at Harvard, the sticker price has nothing to do with real value but is a kind of a scheme to soak the rich for the benefit of the poor. And President Faust only hints that there’s a point above qualifying for lots of financial aid but below being rich where students have to borrow big-time to attend Harvard. She doesn’t talk about them, nor the plight of often larger groups of similar students at other equally expensive but less well-endowed colleges.
Now I’ve often said that those who talk about the higher educational bubble exaggerate because they focus on sticker prices and the not-that-common situation of the students suckered into borrowing huge amounts of money to meet them. But it still stuns me that President Faust can be so complacent about the gap between sticker price and actual cost so rapidly expanding. She’s rather glib on what her product is really worth to students. It’s true that her indifference can be explained, in part, by the fact that Harvard has no trouble getting itself filled up with excellent students, and the discounting isn’t driven by “economic necessity.” At most private colleges these days, sticker prices and discounting are much more about what they think they can get away with and be filled up.
Every day I have to tell young people thinking about college not to pay attention to sticker prices and, of course, never–unless daddy and/or mama are really rich–be suckered into paying one. If you think about it, the residential college experience remains worth it to the very rich, the fairly to very poor who qualify for impressive need-based discounts, and those smart and accomplished enough to be win big academic scholarships at the schools (most schools, if not Harvard or Swarthmore) that have to offer them to improve their academic quality. It’s the average or maybe slightly above average guy–in both family income and brains–who’s stuck with being a borrowing sucker or not going at all. It might even be true that the brand Harvard–whatever actually goes on there–is almost worth the retail price, but that’s not true at all for average to merely above average private residential colleges.
As far as I can tell, poor and worthy kids aren’t benefiting as much as someone would think from the discounting, and all the experts are worrying that so few of those kids, despite the dropping real cost for them, still aren’t finding their way to elite colleges. They’re too often scared away by sticker prices and aren’t blessed with parents and teachers with the savvy to show them how best to exploit the system. Buying a college education these days is much more complicated than buying a used car; in the latter case, everyone knows the sticker price is a joke and the discount to the hard-bargaining customer is to what the vehicle is really worth. And car dealers, of course, don’t slash costs with the financial situation or the brains of the customer in mind.
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.
(Photo: Drew Gilpin Faust. Credit: The Australian.)