Is a college education really worth the price?

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Recently, a Darmouth College lecturer announced her plans to sue her students. Apparently, Dr. Priya Venkatesan was angry about the fact that her pupils were complaining to her boss and openly disagreeing with her. The final straw was when one of her classes applauded a student who argued with her. She subsequently sent them an e-mail that read, in part:

Dear former class members [...] I regret to inform you that I am pursuing a lawsuit in which I am accusing some of you [...] of violating Title VII of anti-federal discrimination laws [...] I am also writing a book detailing my experiences as your instructor, which will "name names" so to speak. I have all your evaluations and these will be reproduced in the book [...] Have a nice day.

In the weeks since her e-mail, Venkatesan's lawsuit hasn't been going very well. According to some sources, she was unable to find a lawyer to represent her, while other sources stated that she has retained a lawyer and is suing Dartmouth College. The basis for her lawsuit is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which guards against employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. Venkatesan apparently feels that, due to her race, Dartmouth failed to suitably protect her from her students.

The response of Venkatesan's students has been particularly interesting. One was quoted in The Dartmouth as saying "We didn't like her because she was not a good teacher, and she wasn't open to others' ideas [...] it had nothing to do with her race or anything like that." Another student noted that "You could tell she came into the class wanting to be a good professor, but I just don't think she knew what she was doing." Additionally, many of her pupils complained to Venkatesan's department head that she lowered the grades of students who disagreed with her.

It's very telling that Venkatesan's students seemed to have a problem with her ineffectiveness as a teacher and her unwillingness to entertain intellectual viewpoints that contravened her dogma. As a former university instructor, I found this story to be all too familiar. Like Venkatesan, one of my graduate professors was a combination literary theorist and medical history specialist. My teacher's focus was on breast feeding, and she vacillated back and forth between English and Women's Studies, brooked no dissent in her classes, and regularly railed against "Patriarchy," a hidden, monolithic force that was undermining all that was good and proper in the world. Sitting through her diatribes, I often wondered what the indoctrination to which she was submitting me could possibly have to do with literary interpretation. While I disagreed with her regularly, I also learned just where the line lay; it was clear that my final grade was based, in part, on my apparent acceptance of her sexist, misandrist perspective.

As a graduate student with an assistantship, I was taking the class for free, so I was able to laugh about a lot of the nonsense that I had to deal with. However, given that Dartmouth's tuition is currently over $45,000 a year, I can easily understand why Venkatesan's students found it so hard to smile. Like many college students, these kids probably thought that the purpose of college was to enhance their intellectual abilities, teach them a certain body of knowledge, and generally prepare them for the greater world. Instead, it sounds like they found themselves held hostage by a liberal-fringe dogmatist, and threatened with a failing grade if they refused to accept her perspective.

When I used to ask my students why they were in college, most of them responded that they were there to get "a good job" and "make lots of money." I would then suggest that they consider dropping out of school and look into becoming plumbers, undertakers, electricians, or car mechanics. These professions, I pointed out, were more lucrative than most of the jobs for which they were training. Unlike, say, sociologists, the world needs plumbers and electricians. To put it another way, while people might never require the services of a philosopher, they will always want to flip a switch and get light or push a lever to make their excreta disappear.

For most of my students, a college education was a given; it was "13th grade," an required next step that they had never questioned. On the other hand, given the ridiculously high cost of a college education, this might be a good time for many students to seriously question the actual utility of an advanced degree. While I greatly value the ability of a college education to advance a student's ability to think, I also acknowledge that many of my former students will never actually use that ability. To be honest, I also have to admit that a surprisingly large percentage of my former colleagues were more invested in indoctrination than intellectual discussion.

The sad fact is that a college education has become a prerequisite for all but the most menial office jobs, and the more prestigious the university, the more earning power it confers. This monopoly on job preparation means that colleges can pretty much charge whatever they want. Moreover, as Thomas Sowell notes, with the federal government underwriting the high cost of tuition, colleges have absolutely no reason to charge less. In fact, as a college instructor, I knew a large number of people for whom the cost of a college education far outstripped their earning potential. The most egregious was my friend who had paid $250,000 to prepare for a teaching career that started at a mere $30,000 per year, but I could offer numerous examples of people who spent years of study and thousands of dollars to get jobs that paid less than a lower-level management position at McDonald's.

As I noted before, one solution to the high cost of education is attending a community college for a couple of years. Perhaps the best solution, though, is to seriously think about your career and lifetime goals, and whether or not you really need to get an expensive, time-consuming degree to achieve them.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He had to leave teaching, as it didn't pay enough for him to send his daughter to college!
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