Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Question of College

The Catholic blog world has been talking about the latest situation regarding Father Fessio and Ave Maria University. First, Fr. Fessio was out; now he's back in, apparently, though in a different capacity. Speculation appears to be rife over the causes of this latest controversy regarding the University and its somewhat colorful founder. For some parents who have commented on the situation, a note almost like despair is heard; they'd found an orthodox college they could (almost) afford to send their children to, but now are wondering about Ave Maria University's stability and the direction it will take in the future.

These are valid concerns, of course. But one question which seldom gets voiced is this one. Do our children need to go to college at all?

There are some who will answer in the affirmative. In today's global job market it can be difficult to obtain gainful employment without that magic piece of paper known as the college degree. But as bachelors' degrees become more and more common, available to a wider and wider group of prospective employees, some businesses and employers have now begun to demand advanced degrees from the people who would be hired by them, as a way of separating out the 'really' qualified candidates from those who have only, so far, proved their ability to get a bachelor's degree, an increasingly common and therefore less valued occurrence.

But if the practice of seeking graduate level work as a condition for all but the lowest levels of employment becomes common, soon parents and students who can barely afford four years of college will be faced with the necessity of paying for six. And if the trend continues, there is the very real possibility that it will one day be necessary to obtain a doctorate where once only an undergraduate degree was required.

For some fields of work, of course, an advanced degree is absolutely necessary. But one question I think that middle-class, single income families need to ask themselves is, "Does this child intend to enter a field which requires this sort of degree? Does this child need a bachelor's degree, or will an associate's degree provide entry into the sort of work they wish to do? Does this particular child need a degree at all?"

Too many of us are, in my opinion, prone to the belief that a college degree is necessary for every child, whatever his tastes, interests, talents, or level of diligent scholarship (something we homeschooling moms are in an excellent position to judge). For many of us, who struggled to obtain a liberal arts degree and then spent the next several years struggling to pay for it all, it seems natural that we would want our children to have the opportunity to taste the richness of Catholic thought in an environment of scholarly discipline which both fosters a lively exchange of ideas and forms the mind in habits of logical and inquisitive thought.

But I have come to an opinion which, to tell the truth, had already begun to dawn on me in the days of my own education, when I was close to graduating with a degree that had absolutely no practical relevance in the world of jobs and careers:

It is a luxury for a middle-class family of one income and little means to allow their children to pursue a liberal arts education, if these children have no job prospects after graduation and will be taking on an extremely serious debt load in order to obtain this education.

Now, though I've said it's a luxury, that doesn't mean it's never justified. It's a luxury to buy your child an expensive pair of shoes, after all, but if a doctor strongly recommends such a pair of shoes as a way of dealing with an orthopedic issue of some concern, most parents will find a way to buy the shoes. If your child wishes to enter a scholarly religious order that generally wishes the applicants to have completed some level of a liberal arts education, this education would become something of a necessity. Similarly, if your child shows an amazing talent in the field of literature, history, philosophy or theology, and is willing either to obtain an education minor or to major in a practical field and then take on the liberal arts field as a second major or as a minor, this would also be a sensible way to approach the situation.

But the way not to approach the situation is to let your child declare a liberal art major and have absolutely no idea how he or she intends to pay back those staggering student loans after graduation, if you are a middle-class family of one income and limited means.

Are liberal arts educations only for the rich? Not at all. But whether we like it or not, whether it suits our ideas about the purpose of education or the idea of the University, colleges and universities today exist primarily to provide astronomically expensive career training. The few students who are capable of scaling the ivory tower will continue to find a way to do so; unless we harbor a natural genius or two in our midst, we will insist that our children find a way to blend their pursuit of pure truth with some practical notions of employment after college, so that they don't have to wait four or five years to begin a religious vocation or a family, whichever the case may be.


4andcounting said...

I agree that there is too much emphasis on college as the only acceptable path after completing high school. As an advisor at a public university, I saw way too many students who just did not want to be there, wasting their time and their parents' money. If my children want to pursue something more vocational in nature, or just wait a few years to attend college, that is fine with me. My husband and I have already realized that our worth as parents will not be determined by whether or not our children attend college and whether or not we pay for it upfront.
That being said, I loved attending university and I really enjoyed my major, although I knew before I graduated that I most likely would not be using it right away (political science). I do hope to one day teach high school government, but I need more schooling to do that. :)
Great food for thought.

Maria said...

Just found your blog and am enjoying it. I could not agree more. My siblings and I were blessed with parents who helped us do some hard thinking and discernment during our first years of high school to help decide what level of education would help us achieve our goals. So much time and money would be saved if parents and their teens spent some serious time discerning their true goals and desires instead of just buying into this idea that you absolutely MUST go to a four-year institution. While I did get a liberal arts degree (and my husband recieved a liberal arts degree and a law degree)some of my siblings chose other paths -- and are just as happy and making more money with no debt!

Red Cardigan said...

Maria, welcome! I think you're right about the importance of parental direction. I hope when my children are old enough I'll be able to provide good guidance.

One thing I sometimes think about is that the decision NOT to attend college is hardly irrevocable--I've met many older and nontraditional college students who've enjoyed and appreciated their education more than they would have at eighteen or nineteen, when they still had no idea what they wanted to do.