Daydreams: College's intrinsic worth: Investigating the value of college in a tight economy

Posted by Richard Chrisman

It's time to put into proper perspective all the concerns expressed by commentators and American families about the high cost of higher education today. The discussion can be broken down into two questions: are college costs affordable, and is college worth the cost?

My answer to the first question is: "Ok, it's a stretch right now." The immediate remedy can be huge infusions of scholarship funds, or alternating semesters of work with semesters of study. Northeastern University (in Boston) has done this sort of thing for years.

My answer to the second question is: "Absolutely, unequivocally yes." But, to see why, we must ignore treatments of the subject like the cover story of the Sept. 17 issue of Newsweek magazine, entitled: "Is College a Lousy Investment?" The article utterly confuses the two questions posed above, arguing that, because college is difficult to afford, it is not worth it. Poor logic.

No doubt about it, paying down student debts is made vastly more difficult today by the present economy in which there are not many jobs around that pay enough for students to pay off large debt readily. Hopefully, this condition is not permanent. Nevertheless, looking for "returns" on one's educational "investment" in any economy utterly misses the intangible, intrinsic merits of higher education.

We have to look beyond skills development, career building, social networking and upward mobility to justify education today. Of course, any of us here at Skidmore would tell you how important it is to learn about our cultural history (and that of other peoples) to attain critical thinking and to become imaginative problem-solvers for problems we cannot foresee.

That said, there is yet another reason for being in college (of any kind, size or cost) that people hardly mention, although it is fundamental to our development as individuals. The college experience is a special rite of passage and a potentially transformative one, depending on how a student approaches it. It's almost automatic that students will pass from a state of relative innocence to a kind of maturity in those four years. But more than that is possible because college is really what we modern Americans have for a "vision quest," that sacred ritual for young Native Americans intended to equip them with a life purpose and a personal ethic. They did it by immersion in Nature and fasting, in order to confront themselves and the Ultimate. We, on the other hand, are totally sheltered. But the analogy still may work, because the student is here to discover his or her ultimate direction and, even in plush college surroundings, that is necessarily harsh and demanding, albeit fulfilling, work. The difference lies in the distinction between learning and discovering.

How so? Well, although you got into college on the basis of your strengths, it is your weaknesses that will educate you here, to the extent that you permit yourself to face up to them and discover what they mean. The Dean of Admissions, Mary Lou Bates, reads the list of your aggregate achievements at each Convocation for first year students. These include the many countries you have visited, the different languages spoken at your dinner tables, the volunteer services you have performed, the musical instruments you play, your theatrical kudos, publications, the academic prizes won and the athletic talents you possess. All that is now ancient history.

It took great will power and great emotional stamina to win your college acceptances, and that's just what you'll need more of to get your money's worth out of college now that you're finally here--not just because meeting the academic challenges is so hard, which it is Becoming a better person, a more self-aware person and a more empathetic one is the product of stepping into mud puddles of your own making-hurting others and being hurt-then reflecting seriously about it. Looked at in a certain way, college is a kind of wilderness where we must encounter our fundamental loneliness, our utter unpreparedness for such diversity of people and our anxiety about the person inside us that we are not fully acquainted with.

In a word, the college experience demands intense introspection if you are going to get your money's worth out of it. And for that we need time apart, but where do we find that in a week crowded with activity? All the stimulating activities, the cramming for course assignments and the extreme weekend entertainments are a natural part of learning on any campus, but they also have to share the road with the process of discovery-our self-discovery. The dollars are only worth it if, in addition to developing our strengths, we take time to face our weaknesses and not be afraid to let them show to our friends, our classmates, our teachers and our counselors.

The vision we quest for--that picture of ourselves and our place in this big world--is inside us, if only we can sit somewhere in a place apart and silently contemplate it. Maybe we need to spend more time daydreaming!

Rick Chrisman is the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life. He enjoys looking down on Skidmore from his second story window.

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