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Is College Worth It?

Is College Worth It?

Jeffrey Bruno

Gary J. Scott - published on 05/29/13

William J. Bennett's and David Wilezol's argument fails on its own terms
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“Whether … cultivating the mind and the soul or maximizing financial return on investment, most of higher education fails most students.”  That is the dreadful conclusion reached by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol in their new book, Is College Worth It?

Reviewing their book in the Washington Times, David DesRosiers (D) concurs with that conclusion, as well as the authors’ reasoning to arrive at that conclusion.  DesRosiers finds Bennett and Wilezol (B&W) providing three general reasons, bolded below.  Upon closer scrutiny, however, these reasons prove unpersuasive, as this analysis will reveal.

  • College Cost Has Increased Unnecessarily

“College has simply become too expensive,” DesRosiers writes in conveying the authors’ first critique of college.  Over the past generation, the real price has “jumped 300 percent” (D).  Of course, whether this is true, and whether it makes college culpable, depends on the meaning and the origin of this apparent inflation of the price of college. 

The exact education service, apparently increasing in price, is never designated.  That omission prevents formulating even a simple college-price or college cost index.  They do mention that the service becoming so pricey is “attendance.”  But even then, DesRosiers specifies this costly attendance to be at non-academic venues: “Wired dorms, state-of-the-art workout facilities, beautiful grounds and Zagat-worthy dining.” 

So country club-like living adjacent to college classrooms has become extravagantly expensive.  That doesn’t make “college” or classroom instruction more expensive; it makes resident living more expensive.  The underlying opportunity-cost of education does not consist in food, housing, and recreation, since those expenditures are more or less incurred by persons whether participating or not in education.

An analogy illuminates this and the related concern of financial aid and its diversion-inflating tuitions.  Dictators have built extra palaces for themselves by allowing outside humanitarian aid – earmarked for food and medicine – to displace dictators’ initial and meager spending on food and medicine.  But dictators’ diversion of their funds from food and medicine to the construction of their new palaces doesn’t make one unit of food or medicine higher-priced.  Similarly, colleges’ diverting financial aid to research, student amenities, or to college endowments doesn’t raise the unit-cost of teaching or learning.

Related to this – and from the perspective of Catholic thought – St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the greatest service one can give to his neighbor is to lead him to truth.  Hence, the highest good does not consist in producing a larger basket of luxury goods by first providing him some truth at lower price.

  • Colleges Have Corrupted Teaching and Curricula

Meanwhile, most of the college instructors that students will encounter after departing their expensive residences and dining halls are “not tenured rock star[s], but galley slave grad student[s] who [are] paid so little” (D).  This deficient faculty expertise, which students suffer when graduate assistants do the teaching, DesRosiers explains, arises because the more experienced and senior-level teachers “teach less and research more.”

To repair the exploitation portion of the college crisis in pay, graduate-student teachers could then be paid more.  But that would raise college cost and thus undermine “the financial return on investment.”

Or alternatively, those “rock star” faculties might actually teach more and research less, and at the same pay.  But their reduced research would reduce their “rock star” expertise, and thereby harm instructional quality.  So the authors’ challenging of college faculties’ pay and teaching allocations seems to have no remedy, for they rely on ambiguous and shifting education standards.  College teaching is now too cheap, as cost-conscious colleges now turn to lower-wage and less-expert teachers.

In attempting to further demonstrate the college-teaching crisis, Bennett and Wilezol write that “much of … the humanities and social sciences is nonsense [being] politically tendentious, and worth little in the marketplace and for the enrichment of your mind and soul.”  Two branches of knowledge have thus deteriorated in their goal of truth, goodness, and beauty.  But that implicates colleges only partially and indirectly; a science or two and its practitioners failing are distinct from the failure of the whole college.

Even more confusing, the authors have now decided to newly burden colleges with attaining fuller truth.  Hence, improved and costly scholarship would seem now the new order of the day.  Yet, DesRosiers characterizes Bennett and Wilezol’s alternative remedy as eliminating or cordoning off offending branches of knowledge.  But that seems an argument against the life of the mind on some subjects, and not a route for improving the life of the mind, at least as practiced in college institutions.

Catholic tradition alternatively affirms the life of the mind by rating scholarship high, in all subjects, and possibly greater than teaching.  Citing documents spanning nearly a thousand years, the esteemed mission of the Catholic university, as promulgated again by Bl. John Paul II, remains this: “By vocation, the [University] is dedicated to research, to teaching and to the education of students who freely associate with their teachers in a common love of knowledge” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990, § 1, emphasis added).

This mission of Catholic universities is formulated alternatively nearly ten times by Bl. John Paul II, and without ever separating or prioritizing teaching over research.  In fact, the word “research” appears 44 times in Ex Corde, while “teaching” appears only 25 times.  And that emphases is further corroborated with many passages such as this: “A Catholic University, therefore, is a place of research, where scholars scrutinize reality with the methods proper to each academic discipline, and so contribute to the treasury of human knowledge …  Given the close connection between research and teaching, the research qualities indicated above will have their influence on all teaching” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990, § 15, 20).

So Bennett and Wilezol could not really ever turn to Catholic teaching as their moral authority in advocating for more teaching over scholarship, even with the good intention to keep college cost lower.

  • Students Entering College Are Not Prepared

The final and proposed failure of most colleges is that most of the entering college students are not “college ready” (D).  In other words, “College is only worth it for a minority of students” (D). 

The fact that students are unprepared for college, however, constitutes a failure of grade school education, not a failure of college education.

Related to this deficient academic preparation, DesRosiers summarizes Bennett and Wilezol making this recommendation: “For those [few] with the requisite gray matter to handle college-level work …[or] if you have the aptitude for a STEM degree [science, technology, engineering, mathematics], go for it.” 

The authors’ enthusiasm for the college study of STEM implicitly celebrates now a good portion of many colleges as being successful.  This advocacy comes despite the STEM curricula being more expensive, despite the ensuing higher supply of technicians and engineers eventually diluting down their wages, and despite this advocacy now veering away from their conclusion of pervasive college failure.

Meanwhile, recommending a curriculum long on science and technology and short on the humanities also runs counter to the spirit of Catholic education.  After proclaiming the amazing good of technology, Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, “Human freedom is authentic only when it responds to the fascination of technology with decisions that are the fruit of moral responsibility.  Hence the pressing need for formation in an ethically responsible use of technology” (Caritas in Veritate, 2009, § 70).

Balancing scientific, technical, and ethical education remains a consistent theme at least for Catholic colleges.  Bl. John Paul II, for example, previously emphasized this principle when writing that the “University is called in a particular way to … evaluate the attainments of science and technology in the perspective of the totality of the human person” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990, § 7).

To conclude, the argument in Bennett and Wilezol’s, Is College Worth It?, fails on its own terms, at least as re-presented, perhaps in haste, by the sympathetic reviewer, David DesRosiers.  To ever improve higher education is too vital a cause to discredit it with incoherent arguments.  Plus, it fails to correspond to Catholic principles of education, with logical consistency also being one of many Catholic principles.

Dr. Gary J. Scott is an Aleteia Expert. Gary Scott is Professor of Business and Chair of the Business Department at Belmont Abbey College.

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