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What's a college education worth?

Here's a question: At the end of four or five debt-inducing years, what exactly does a college student have to show for their time that serves them better—that they couldn't or wouldn't have learned from working in some trade?

Here's a related question: At the end of four or five years of collecting massive debt at a top-tier college or university, what exactly—materially—has a student learned that they couldn't have learned at a university of lesser rank? Or even a community college?

I'm clear that the diploma itself, an institutionally endorsed credential, will provide access to certain opportunities and spaces that may be calculated to be worth the price-of-admission. And I'm also aware that the peer-group one socializes with in college is also accompanied by privileged access to opportunity of untold value. But I'm not asking if the game we've designed to hoard the most valuable opportunities for the racial elite and the power-holding class of our society is fair; I already know the answer to that question.

My question is, What if there were true merit in our society? And what if students' abilities to afford tuition at top-tier universities in the United States of America had no bearing on the educational opportunities they could access? What materially have these students learned that couldn't have been learned with less economic jeopardy than what is typical now for the graduating class of 2020? Is it not unconscionable—or at the very least economically unfeasible—that we would expect college graduates to assume an average of $32,731 debt for an education that provides skills and knowledge essential to enter to the 21st century workforce? Is that not patently inequitable? And ask an economist or a sociologist about the long-term effects on society of saddling nearly every member of the annual college-educated workforce with debt it takes decades to repay. What's worse though is... if there's no good answer to the question, it would mean that we are compelling students to devote years of their earning potential to what amounts to a con game.

There's a cohort amongst colleges and universities that has had what amounts to a stranglehold on a certain kind of credential nearly always necessary for accessing a high-status level of opportunity in America... and many students played along because it was (a) the only game in town, and (b) it at least offered a social experience that is unlikely to be replicated anytime or anywhere else. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with so many students unable to take advantage of the social opportunities of campus life, many are reconsidering the value of the economic commitment of attending top-tier universities. If there isn't really a material difference in the quality of what is learned in course-taking, the cost-per-credit takes on a different weight in the decision-making process.

31 July 2020



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