Is College Worth It? -- Questions Beyond Dollars and Cents

A person who does not know fear has never looked full into the eyes of March Madness. I speak not of college basketball but of college itself, for at this moment in high school hallways across Ventura County, and across the country, college acceptances are rolling in. Fortunate students and parents are celebrating. Then, while the students continue celebrating, the parents slip off to a private place where, unless they are Bill and Melinda Gates, they look deeply into their checkbooks to see that the numbers don't match.

Fear is such a negative word. Let's just say the enthusiasm dims.

I know this fear -- um, diminished enthusiasm -- intimately. With one son already in college, and a high school senior now on his way, my wife and I are asking ourselves the question foremost on every parent's mind: "Is college worth it?"

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There are, of course, economic analyses galore addressing this matter. After reading some of them, I have reached two conclusions. One, I do not understand economics. Two, this would concern me more if not for the fact that many economists don't understand economics either. It seems to me economics is often a science of hindsight. Parents of college students don't have time for hindsight.

Or as a friend and fellow parent of a soon-to-be college freshman recently said to me, "Mother of God. It's going to wipe out our life savings. When that's gone, I have no idea how I'll pay for the next three years." For an alarming moment, I thought he might cry. And if he didn't take the initiative, I would. In the end we sniffled, for in our society two grown men crying is terribly unbecoming.

In straightforward dollars and cents (because you'll need them too), is college worth it? I don't know. Frankly, I don't think anybody knows.

But recently I read a short essay that made me feel a lot better about our college investment(s). The essay was written by Gene Block, who, as chancellor of the UCLA, knows something of higher education and weeping parents. Block made me feel better because, while he acknowledged the tremendous cost of college these days, he doesn't see college in strictly dollars and cents terms or bang-for-your-buck analyses (Four Years at Harvard = a Lifetime of Privilege and a Hallway Foyer the Size of the Houston Astrodome).

College, Block wrote in his essay, should not be something students just do for themselves. It should also be something they do for their communities. It isn't about what they will earn when they graduate (although that certainly matters). It is also about what they will do to make the world a better place.

I know from experience that these are not just pretty words. UCLA backs this up, and from the get go. Every fall, just before classes begin, thousands of their new students head out into Los Angeles to perform volunteer projects at community centers, parks and schools where, in the latter case, they might paint the outside of a particular elementary school. "The buildings were like really weird colors," says a student who was involved in precisely such a project. "The paint was chipping and falling off. It was so hot that day. But it felt really good to do it."

Block believes framing college simply as a return-on-investment is wrong. Certainly if you pay $30,000 a year for college and you land a $150,000 a year engineering job right out of college, even an economist like me can see that college was worth it. But there is much gray. How, asks Block, do you measure the return on investment of a UCLA graduate who becomes a teacher at a low-performing high school and inspires countless students to go on to greater things?

The essay was not my first encounter with Block or his philosophy. I saw him speak two years ago at UCLA's Royce Hall. Introduced as, among other things, an expert in circadian rhythms who likes to restore vintage cars, Block was easy going and funny, the kind of person you could imagine not as a monastically robed academic but as a friend who might lend a hand with your vintage-plus car. Block welcomed the incoming freshman class. He welcomed their parents to Parents Weekend. "It's great to have parents around. You can never have too many hall monitors." (Ha ha. I think.) He said his hope was for students to go out into the world and do enormous good for society.

This made me feel good because our son was among the new freshman Block was welcoming. After his speech was over I was so inspired I wanted to rush up to the stage. Block seemed like the kind of man who would welcome a handshake from a grown man who now wished he was going to UCLA. But rushing the stage was potentially messy -- we were sitting in the mezzanine -- and, more important, doing so would have been a supreme embarrassment to our son, so I just clapped politely from my seat.

But I did not forget Block's speech as we watched our son -- uncharacteristically, I might add -- get involved in a string of events that benefited others, among them UCLA's annual Bruin Dance Marathon, which this past February raised $475,422.57 for pediatric AIDS (and over $3 million since its inception 12 years ago). Cullen was only one of hundreds involved, but that, by definition, is a community. Smitten, he will be involved every year until he graduates. He does not know what his post college job prospects are, but of this involvement he is absolutely certain. He was, along some two hundred students, also involved in painting the Los Angeles elementary school, absorbing the heat and the take home lesson.

"We are," Block told incoming freshman and checkbook-haunted parents, "transforming lives."

A noble mission.

The world, no doubt, is a troubled place. But this is not an irrevocable sentence. In his essay Block writes, "[N]ever in my 35 years in higher education have I seen a more pronounced and sustained effort by young people to choose careers that serve society."

In the end, believes Block, college shouldn't just be about how much money you should make. The questions are far grander. What barrier will I break? How can I change the world?

In the end it is not hard to see beyond March, beyond the matter of checks and checkbooks, beyond even the matter of a college degree.

These questions, and their underlying mission, are not just for college students.

Top image via Flickr user prayitno, used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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