C.W. Gusewell


The cost and the value of a diploma

Is a college education worth the time and the price?

That question was posed by two polls whose results received prominent notice in the recent news.

One was conducted by the College Board, an association of nearly 6,000 U.S. institutions of advanced learning, and the weekly National Journal magazine. Among respondents in the 18-to-29 age range, fewer than half believed a bachelor’s degree contributed importantly to success in later life.

The other survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that only four Americans out of 10 – at a time when tuitions are soaring and the job market is less than robust – see college as a sensible investment.

Clearly those opinions are influenced less by objective fact than by personal experience.

My father’s boyhood was spent on a patch of gullied farmland, and his education in a country elementary school ended at his father’s death. He came to the city to try to make his way. And having been lucky enough to find a job, he never left it.

He was a good man – hardworking, faithful to his family, loyal to his employer and his friends. But those virtues never earned him the rewards he deserved. At Christmas – to provide a bit extra – he worked two jobs, sometimes three.

For him, as for my mother, college never was a possibility, or even considered. But regardless of whatever hardship it might entail for them, education for me beyond high school was always in their plan.

Not once have I doubted its worth.

I arrived as a college freshman more interested in sports and social life than in serious learning. The professors, however, brooked no foolishness. They demanded accuracy and timeliness in the completion of assignments.

And though I couldn’t know it then, I would later begin my career already trained in two of the disciplines most essential to the craft of journalism – verification and the inviolability of deadlines.

I look back on those four years now, as I do on my time of military service, as having been among the most valuable and formative periods of my life.

But just as a college diploma is no absolute assurance of success, the lack of one is no guarantee of failure. History is rich with the stories of uncredentialed individuals whose imagination and innate talents have propelled them to great heights of artistic or entrepreneurial achievement.

Or some just go to Texas and marry oil.

But it might be interesting to track the life outcomes of the ones contacted in those two surveys who don’t believe higher education is worth the trouble or the money. How many of them, do you suppose, are washing cars, flipping burgers or betting the future on a lottery ticket?

The issue isn’t whether college is a reasonable investment.

The problem is that the price of a degree today is roughly the same as the sticker on a luxury car. One you can drive. The other you just hang on a wall.

It wasn’t always that way. I paid my way through a fine private college washing dishes twice a day, sweeping the chapel, ghostwriting term papers and winning money on the shuffle boards in small-town saloons.

Opportunity is wherever you find it.