Despite the obvious appeal of being in such an intellectually rich environment and the chance to learn for learning’s sake, is the much-sought-after four-year education at the nation’s elite colleges and universities even worth it anymore?
Increasingly, the anecdotal evidence against spending such outlandishly high sums of money is looking more and more persuasive even as the demand for the seats — and the price people are willing to pay for them — continues to increase.
Haven’t I seen this argument somewhere before? Oh yeah, I’ve seen it just about everywhere, and while Historiann likes to point out that state schools are a relative bargain, this guy is actually attacking the value of college in general rather than Ivy League schools in particular:
Bill Gates, one of the two founders of Microsoft and now the world’s second-richest person, famously dropped out of Harvard after about two years. Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle — the software behemoth —and the world’s fifth richest person, first dropped out of the University of Illinois and then dropped out of the University of Chicago before starting his business career. Perhaps the most admired corporate executive in the country — Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple and Pixar, a billionaire in his own right and the largest individual shareholder in The Walt Disney Company — also is a college dropout. He left Reed College after six months, hung around campus for another 18 months and then with Steve Wozniak — a Berkeley dropout who completed his degree later —started Apple.
There’s something beautifully 19th century about this line of reasoning. “If Andrew Carnegie could make it from rags to riches without a college education, you can too!” But what happened if you weren’t quite as successful as Andrew Carnegie?
The new issue of Lapham’s Quarterly is entitled “Lines of Work,” and it’s a little slice of heaven for a labor historian like me. I’m stealing this quote from Lewis Lapham’s introductory essay:
“We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”
That was Woodrow Wilson in 1909, while he was still President of Princeton. The sentiment is despicable, but at least it’s honest. The anti-college diatribes of today have more to do with the fact that rich people don’t want to pay higher taxes to let people who can’t afford college escape a life of specific difficult manual tasks. Nevertheless, their thoughts are always offered up as if they’re trying to do prospective college students a favor. But what’s their alternative to college? The Bill Gates private charter school for future billionaires? Gleaning, more likely.
It’s not higher education that’s failed the prospective job applicant of today, it’s the structure of the economy itself. We professors can only do so much.