The Hidden Cost of Liberal Education at Immoderate Prices

The Hidden Cost of Liberal Education at Immoderate Prices

Recently, I heard from a friend whose grandson earned a coveted “early acceptance” slot from the University of Chicago. The kicker? The price of yearly tuition, room and board, which currently stands at almost $55,000 a year. By the time this young man finishes his bachelor’s degree in 2014, he will have paid (whether via loans, grants, scholarships, whatever) a sum approaching a quarter of a million dollars: enough to buy two decent houses in the area of Pennsylvania in which I live.

We all know higher education, especially at private, prestige institutions, has a high price tag attached to it. But does it have to be so? And what’s the hidden cost of this?

To answer the first question: It doesn’t have to be so. Right after World War II, tuition at the University of Chicago was $100 per quarter, later raised to $200 per quarter. My friend, a World War II veteran who worked in the local steel mills, managed to complete his degree (supported by the GI Bill) while earning an hourly wage of $1.25 as a laborer. The dream of social mobility achieved through education and hard work was alive and well in the late 1940s, facilitated by educational institutions that didn’t load down their working-class students with soul-crushing debt.

How many of today’s common laborers could afford to attend a top-flight private research university like Chicago? The answer is obvious: None. And what does this imply about the American dream of an egalitarian society in which a truly educated citizenry provides the strongest bulwark to democracy?

Why, one might ask, is liberal education so expensive today? Partly, it’s because of the bells and whistles that many students have come to expect from prestige institutions. They want to be able to study abroad in an exotic locale for at least one semester. They want a diverse range of outré course offerings, from which they can select the most fashionable bits. Affluent students, already winners in a winner-take-all society, can afford the luxury of what amounts to a boutique education. Their working-class counterparts cannot.

For disadvantaged students lacking money and grants, the sheer expense of higher education drives them to focus on the relentlessly practical. Pursuing self-expression through degrees in poetry, music or other “fine” arts may be inspiring in theory, but where are the post-graduation jobs with a salary high enough to pay off student loans? Eschewing “soft-skill” majors such as English and history, they choose instead to pursue hardheaded business- and computer-related subjects, and who can blame them? Anything to keep the debt-collecting wolf from their door.

Less-than-affluent students are so focused on making a buck that it narrows their horizons. They value only those subjects that promise a high return on investment. At the same time, colleges and universities play to and reinforce their anxieties, pushing them toward subjects that promise a healthy return on their considerable investment.

In these complex times, we desperately need more young people – especially those hailing from hardscrabble backgrounds – to pursue the liberal arts. Yet, as a society we continue, paradoxically, to devalue these subjects while pricing them beyond the means of the working classes.

The cost to us? An ethos in which the liberal arts are increasingly seen as boutique education for the already advantaged; boutique prices and their implied exclusivity, meanwhile, work to keep the disadvantaged at bay, confined to cubicles while toiling for the man.

Liberal education that’s accessible to (nearly) all, a reality 60 years ago, is an illusion today. And, so, our democratic society grows ever more stratified as well as impoverished, culturally and intellectually.

When only the well-heeled can afford – in terms of money or risk – to study the liberal arts, our democracy withers. For the tree of liberty must be cultivated from time to time by the horny-handed sons (and daughters) of toil, not just by the uncalloused hands of the already privileged.

A dearth of young working-class men and women of Jeffersonian liberality of purpose, interests and power: that’s the true cost of liberal education at immoderate prices.