A Teacher’s Take on the Cost of College

“Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.” — Aristotle

The presidential election nears, and now we have candidates venturing back into the waters of education policy. Both camps have grand solutions: Candidate Clinton declares anyone who wants a debt- free college education from a public university will get it. Candidate Walker will choke out the college cost beast by reducing state funds. As with most things in the race for the White House, good politics and good policy often contradict one another.

Those of us with the good fortune to have attended a four-year university can romanticize the impact of those four years, the proverbial “best years of our lives.” In reality, the statistics reveal a diverse and complicated universe of who attends college and at what costs.

Ryan Craig in his book College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education cites numerous studies important to understand when we hear politicians and pundits talk about “college education” in America. Of all 20 million college students:

- 70% enroll in public universities or colleges.

- 29% are 18 to 22 years old attending as full time students in a four year school.

- 43% are 25 years or older.

- 45% of all undergraduates attend community colleges.

These statistics show that a variety of people attend a variety of colleges in the United States, and the great strength of our higher education system originates in its diversity: if you want to attend college at some point in life, for the most part, you can.

But, that strength is also a weakness. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued a report in 2010 citing that despite being eligible to attend college, 60% of first year college students are not prepared for the academic requirements of their classes. The bulk of these ill-prepared students attend non-selective four year institutions or two year non-selective community colleges. Most troubling to me in this report, a full 75% of all students entering two year community colleges require remedial math or English or both.

Therein lies the gap between what students can do and what they need to do to begin a college education. Meanwhile, the rhetoric abounds, clichéd references to college attendance as a “pathway to the middle class” or integral to “preserve democracy,” and the tuitions and student debt continue to rise. Politicians may state they care, but in reality, education is a great game for scoring political points. Hence, we hear about promises to cap debt or cut costs, solutions neither financially nor practically feasible, and amidst all this oratory, I know of no evidence that states the quality of post-secondary education is improving.

In truth, a sound education itself begins much earlier than the years designated for college. It begins with parents reading to their children. It begins with teachers who care about their elementary students’ learning. It begins with instilling the virtues of curiosity, hard work, and self-discipline early in life. These solutions, neither simple nor easy, we must remember when politicians promise quick fixes to the complex system of higher education.

Success, whether monetary or personal, in the United States can occur without a formal, expensive education. Perhaps, training in college or an advanced degree opens a certain professional door, but employers really need people who can show up on time, communicate clearly in both the spoken and written word, and deliver an honest effort in their work. Communities need people who can think through problems, cooperate with other people, and promote citizenship. These skills come from lessons learned in school, but not exclusively. These lessons come from parents and neighbors and friends. They also come from people who don’t believe a college degree guarantees success. These leaders, the men and women who strive valiantly every day to run businesses or improve communities or govern neighborhood associations or lead their houses of worship, these are the people who demonstrate what an education does.

These are the people who see what Aristotle pointed out: our education, not the degree we earned or the bumper sticker on our car, sustains us in times of trouble. These are the teachers amongst us.

Thank you for reading, and please share or offer a comment.


Text: Craig, R. 2015. College disrupted: The great unbundling of higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.

Photo: J. Mason New

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