By A. B. Jacobs
Much is made over the importance of higher education, and rightly so. Those youths whose schooling ends with a high school diploma will, throughout life, find themselves with the same opportunity as persons who marry in haste: that of repenting at leisure. Just as a secondary school diploma was the prerequisite for entrée as a participant in the industrialized society of the early twentieth century, a bachelor’s degree from a college or university is a minimal requirement for effectively competing in the technological environment that exists today. To ignore this fact is to ignore reality.
Although there is general agreement that advanced education is necessary, there is no consensus as to exactly what constitutes first rate schooling. If today’s institutions of higher learning share one thing in common, it is the hyperbole each exhibits in promoting itself. Scholastic reputation, whether real or perceived, is a marketing tool, and there seems no limit to the claims of excellence used to induce students to attend, alumni to endow, and prestigious educators to affiliate. Above all else, higher education is big business in every sense of the word. The result is as you might expect. Large numbers of students throughout the nation obtain their college diplomas at a huge financial cost. Whether the funds are provided by parents, many who must literally mortgage their own existence, or by students who graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, the sacrifice is often immense.
While we’re on the subject of money, we’ll scrutinize a few numbers. Despite the costs of attending certain private universities, where annual tuitions, fees, room, and board, can exceed $40,000, there are many schools that are far less expensive. Here in my state, the University of California charges $5,684 tuition for resident students, the California State University system recently set its charges at $2,334, and at the bottom of the financial totem pole are the community colleges that a full-time student can attend for $780 per year.
The question then becomes, how might a prospective student best select from among the many institutions? As you might guess, I harbor some opinions. Essentially I disfavor the standard methods that include recommendations of school counselors, ratings by such resources as Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, or the brochures and press releases issued by each university. Instead, my approach advocates college-on-the-cheap, where the student seeks first-rate learning at the lowest cost. My blueprint calls for the first two years at a local community college followed by two years at a state university, commuting from home. Used textbooks can normally be purchased at a fraction of the cost of new ones, either from the school bookstore, or directly from a student just completing the course. This not only trims the expense, but also offers a serendipitous effect—the book often contains important portions underlined, and helpful comments and notations included in the margins. Furthermore, the student should spend each summer at a job, so to earn at least a portion of the year’s education costs. There is something about working that adds an important dimension to the learning experience.
Let me acknowledge that there will be many to brand my program an outline for mediocrity. I’m familiar with the claims: Unless a student attends a prestigious university, the education received will be second-rate. Lord knows, the academic community has been repeating that catechism for decades, and many persons believe it to be so. The actual fact is that four years at Harvard or Princeton Universities does not impart, to a talented and dedicated student, learning that is in any way superior to the 4-year program I’ve outlined. Nonetheless, there will be parents who will spend unbelievable sums and deprive themselves of many things, at the risk to their own eventual retirement, so that their progeny can attend the idealized institution. No doubt many parents feel that no financial limit can be set when it comes to providing their offspring with the ultimate gift. However, a fortune spent by parents who can ill afford it, jeopardizing their own financial well-being, is money pathetically wasted. Actually, the finest gift that parents can give a child is the assurance that in later years that child will never be required to support their indigent parents.
Let me offer a testimonial of sorts, reaffirming my belief that the academic source of education is far less important than the student’s efforts, and that neither the architectural characteristics of the campus and classrooms nor the credentials of its professors will determine the extent of learning acquired by a motivated student. My mastery of algebra in no way suffered by my classroom being a primitively lighted and ventilated Quonset hut. Similarly my grasp of partnership law is sound, despite a one-time nameless and faceless course instructor located in a post office box two thousand miles away. Admittedly, a smiling and enthusiastic professor in an elite university adds a touch of stature to the process, but the eager student who strives to learn will do so regardless of the accouterments.
I’d like to conclude with a response to those critics who contend that a degree from an institution without an exalted reputation will forever stigmatize its holder. To you, I pose this question: Do you actually know from what schools your dentist, attorney, accountant, and physician received their bachelors’ degrees?
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