College as Consumption

I think of college and higher education less as a financial investment, and more as a luxury consumer good. It’s true that one’s earning potential with a highly-specialized degree in the hard sciences can be worth the cost of tuition. And for those people college can be both enriching, eye-opening and ultimately lucrative. But for most other areas of study, I’m not sure the ultimate financial payoff justifies the upfront costs. And certainly isn’t deserving of being called an ‘investment’. Well, maybe a bad investment.

But this all depends on how long you expect your career to be. If you intend to work for forty years, then perhaps the small bump in salary from a liberal arts degree will ultimately turnout to be a good financial investment as the decades of a slightly-higher salary add up. But if, like me, you expect to largely be done with working around or before age 30, it’s harder to call four years studying in the humanities an ‘investment’.

My first two and a half years of college were the most opulent living I’ve ever experienced. I had a nice room to myself. Someone would clean my bathroom for me twice a week. Three meals a day were cooked for me. I had a huge table of food to choose from everyday and often had two-hour dinners with my friends eating long, complicated meals ending reluctantly after a couple cups of coffee or tea. There was a well-equipped gym and library just a few minutes walk from my room. I’d often work out with a friend, playing tennis, or a game of racquetball. And I could always find a pickup soccer game to play in on the weekends.

It was definitely luxurious and indulgent. Though not in the stereotypical college experience way. I hardly played any video games, didn’t experiment with drugs, though I did drink, but only a few times a year and not to any great excess.

And I took my studies seriously, as did the peers I surrounded myself with. I learned a greater appreciation for geometry, classical music, linguistics, poetry, astronomy, mathematics, logic, ethics, physics, and literature. I enjoyed most of my time. It’s hard to say with a straight face that memorizing Greek conjugations was “fun”. But while the roots of education are hard, the fruits are sweet. And I sincerely did have fun during seminars when we discussed how best to translate a section of Platonic dialogue.

Those studies will pay dividends for the rest of my life, shaping how I view the world and how I view myself. But I don’t think they will ever contribute to helping me get a job in any direct way. Though they certainly helped to make it so I won’t ever really be in much need of a job.

There are ways to treat college as less consumptive and more investment-like. It’s hard to say that someone with a family taking night classes at a community college to get a degree in business isn’t thinking of the expense of time and money as an investment. That is one thing. But for the tens of thousands of college students spending four or more years studying history, poetry, art, theology or literature, I think it’s easy to see that the study is less of an investment, and more of an indulgence. – Especially for the ones who have no desire to research or teach.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. I think it’s a wonderful use of our wealth to allow our nation’s youth an unprecedented opportunity to spend so many years of their lives in one of the most joyful endeavors of life; the pure, unfettered pursuit of knowledge.

I didn’t finish my undergrad degree on the first try. After a break from school for a couple of years I started back up again. This time as a night student. I worked full time during the day as a utility lineman and then would take the afternoon train to my evening classes. The experience was certainly less indulgent in that it was closer to bare-bones education. No prepared meals thrice daily, no time for two hour dinners with friends, and less time generally for the extra-curricular intellectual pursuits. – Just class, library time, and homework time. And if a book wasn’t on the syllabus then it wasn’t on my reading list.

But I still stuck to the liberal education curriculum, focusing mostly on history, ethics, psychology, literature and mathematics to finish up my degree. It was still something I did for the sake of itself.

It’s an unfortunate reality that not everyone can afford to think of higher education as a luxury, and necessity dictates that they treat it strictly as an investment in order to increase their earning potential. Certainly someone who has a family to support and a necessity to earn a living would be selfish and irresponsible to risk spending his limited money and time studying art history. And someone with a limited social safety net from his family might be wise to study something that makes him most employable, rather than what he finds most enjoyable.

But those cases of necessity shouldn’t deter us from encouraging those with the resources, lack of responsibilities, and drive, to pursue an education for the sake of itself. I think, too often, college is evaluated purely on how much more employable it will make the graduate. While that type of analysis can be helpful for someone who is simply looking to increase his salary, I think it is ultimately a disservice to the role that higher education could have in someone’s life.

For hundreds of years, up until the past few decades, college was reserved for the relative few males fortunate enough to be born with some brains and into a family of some means. Education was a luxury that mostly got in the way of earning a living, rather than enhancing it. Somehow, slowly, over the past several decades in the United States, education has morphed almost completely into job training. And the idea of education as anything other than job training is slipping away.

But the poetry, english, liberal arts, and art history majors hold on to the old ways. The choice to do so definitely comes from being in a privileged position. But I do wish there was at least a little more encouragement, for those with the ability to do so, to indulge in their studies rather than make the whole affair boil down to a return-on-investment analysis.



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  1. Dale B
    Posted November 26, 2011 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Paragraph 3 makes it sound like a resort. College isn’t cheap, but a semester in the dorm is certainly cheaper than a semester at a Sandals.

    I think there are subtle status points you receive in higher education. I’ve often thought that my liberal arts education, if nothing else, has set me up to enjoy a whole class of jokes that less-educated members of my family will never understand. If I’m at a party, and someone I’ve just met makes a joke about Hamlet, I either get the joke or know enough to know it’s a joke. Joke told, laugh received, and a certain status equilibrium between teller and receiver has been certified.

  2. Posted November 29, 2011 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m curious about your humanities studies, why did you return to a formal college education vs. just reading books? Was it critical to have discussion groups, peers in the same discipline, an educated professor, etc?

    When I think back to my college experience (which was admittedly more Dionysian), I feel that the only areas that labs/discussions/lectures were necessary for learning were my science classes. I also took poetry, literature, art classes and others. But in hindsight I feel that the non-science lessons could have been (and have since been) learned online and through books.

    Then again, I’m an engineer that only plays in these other fields, which is why I’m curious of your opinion as someone that shares so many points of view in life, but has perspective in a different area of education.

    I’m especially intrigued since you returned to formal education after leaving college, which indicates to me that you deliberately saw value in a formal education…

    Thanks for your opinion on this…

  3. Posted November 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    @tjt What’s interesting is that I almost have the opposite view on science classes vs. humanities classes. I was always a pretty good math student through high school. And I was a self-taught computer programmer around age 13 or so with developing skills in the area up through high school. Mathematics and the sciences seemed like the perfect candidate for self study since I could always know whether or not I was correct, and I could recreate experiments with minimal equipment at my work bench.

    But I had limited exposure to the humanities through high school and was always (and still am) very skeptical of classes that involved things like literary interpretation, poetry, or judging/training people in modes of creative expression such as music, painting, poetry, writing, etc. It all seemed so arbitrary.

    I agree that just about everything learned at college can be learned just as well through books.

    But I find varying my learning to include books, lectures, peer to peer discussions, student to professor discussions, in-class group discussions makes the process a bit more entertaining. And I do think there’s some value to the variety of fields you have to dabble in in order to get through a degree program. Forcing you to wander into intellectual areas that maybe you would never otherwise go in. The structure of a well thought out syllabus and opportunities to get feedback on my own thinking and writing was also integral to my education. There’s also the positive social aspect of being around people with similar interests in similar life circumstances and being able to grow friendships out of chance encounters like signing up for the same class.

    But of course, you could just look at the degree requirements online, probably even look up a lot of the syllabi, and follow the curriculum on your own through self-study using books and maybe a few thoughtful online discussion boards to bounce ideas off of.

    But I guess that’s yet more evidence to my point, that college is a luxury item.

    It’s amazing, given how cheap I am, how much of that luxury I’ve indulged in. But generous parents got me through my first couple of years. Then a generous employer got me through the latest few. So while it’s a luxury I’ve been able to enjoy, it’s not one I’ve actually had to pay for. Had I had to pay myself to finish my degree I doubt I would have. I remember thinking I would never bother. But then I fell into a job with a limitless free tuition benefit and rethought it.