In her new book, “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost,” anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom documents how the rising cost of college is fundamentally transforming the character of middle-class family life. Based on interviews with more than 150 parents and students who have seen their lives upended in the struggle to pay for college, the book is a long-overdue corrective to a policy debate too often couched in financial terms.
While I welcome efforts to personalize the hardship caused by our broken postsecondary education system, I believe one notable casualty of the system continues to be overlooked. I am referring to the very idea of a liberal education.
Throughout much of the latter half of the 20th century, college was commonly regarded as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage in wide-ranging intellectual exploration before the onset of adulthood and its attendant responsibilities. While it was understood that graduates would one day join the workforce, a tacit sense of self-discovery prevailed on college and university campuses.
One could study Eastern philosophy or the history of textiles irrespective of career plans, if any such plans existed at all. The absence of all-consuming financial pressures on students and families encouraged academic eclecticism, and the broader culture was the richer for it.
To be clear, college has always been a financial stretch for some families. I think we can agree, though, that parents and students today are facing unprecedented challenges in their pursuit of postsecondary education. This is the underlying message of Professor Zaloom’s book, and I fear the situation is giving rise to a new consumerist mindset about college, which in turn is altering the way families relate to institutions of higher learning.
Not surprisingly, parents and students now increasingly view college in mercenary terms, and who can blame them. Student loan balances now routinely exceed $50,000, and tales of recent graduates delaying marriage or homeownership on account of college debt are legion.
This emerging dynamic is playing out in a variety of ways. Consider the stir created by Bankrate’s recent report on the best-paying college majors. It will surprise no one to learn that STEM fields led the way, or that art majors were deemed the least valuable. The widespread media coverage of the report’s findings was startling, though, and if there were dissenting voices as to the usefulness or suitability of evaluating majors in such a way, they were decidedly muted.
Consider also the precipitous decline of traditional liberal arts majors at colleges and universities nationwide. According to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, bachelor’s degrees in the humanities represented 17 percent of all degrees conferred in 1967, compared with 5 percent in 2015. The picture is almost surely worse today.
I strongly favor giving students ample opportunities to pursue remunerative careers, if that is what they want. I also strongly favor providing families with the necessary tools to make informed decisions about choosing a major.
Here is my worry: Where will this new transactional mentality lead us next? The abolition of fields like religious studies and linguistics? A vocational model for colleges and universities?
The financial pressure cooker we are creating for families is causing us to lose something truly special about the traditional college experience, and I am not sure how we will restore the old equilibrium.