By Jacob Zimmerman, Opinions Editor
In 2032, the unaided “sticker price” of attending Furman University will be between $110,000 and $130,000 a year.
For this statistic we assume that the cost of college will continue to increase at the same rate that it is been increasing over the past decade, a conservative average of about 5.6 percent a year. Perhaps even more problematic is the similar statistic that attending an in state, public university will cost about as much a year as the current sticker price of our private liberal arts school.
Even if we adjust for inflation and assume that many students will receive some form of financial aid, these numbers are still terrifyingly high, especially given the deteriorating job market for young graduates, a problem that may not be going anywhere anytime soon. We as members of the Furman community are living in the center of an untenable economic bubble, paying more and more for an education that while necessary is continually worth less.
How do we go about managing this problem? As with most economic issues, there are no good top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions. Both of the current presidential candidates offer lackluster solutions. President Barack Obama has proposed an expansion of the federal loan program and plans to limit on the interest rates on those loans. At its best, this solution is a cosmetic solution to a systemic problem, and its worst, this solution contributes to the problems is endeavors to fix.
In opposition, Mitt Romney claims to want to keep the system we have in place and let the free market handle it, a solution that may result in fundamental inequalities in opportunity and in practice functions as a way of dodging the issue.
How can we go about addressing this problem here and now? First, we as a society have to provide alternative forms of education, and work hard to improve the value of the educational structure that already exist. We are simultaneously succeeding and failing in this endeavor, juxtaposing the creation and success of technical and trade schools with the decay of our public education system. A student should optimally be able to graduate from high school with a level of intelligence and a set of skills that allows them to be contributing members of society. We are not meeting this standard.
Second, we as students have to think what we want out of educations that are becoming increasingly expensive. Simply having “an education” does not result in success – an education needs to be employed toward the doing of something. This might seem to conflict with our visions of a liberal arts education – education purely for the sake of bettering ourselves – but I would argue that this tension is productive and worthwhile.
We can easily become dangerously idealistic in the way we reflect on the purpose of education. This is especially true in the humanities, although similar pretenses of knowledge are present in every discipline. Recognizing and highlighting the functionality of a liberal arts education does not cheapen that education, it makes it more valuable.
For our endeavors in the liberal arts to succeed, we have to be critical of our own assumptions and practices, always trying to improve upon current processes and reveal unseen inadequacies. In recognizing the realities and difficulties of living in a less than predictable world, we do not have to compromise our values. We simply need to recognize when those values become the boundaries that prevent us from realizing them. When a liberal arts education becomes economically restrictive and institutionally dogmatic, too committed to keeping things the way they are, it fails to live up to its own values.
Finally, we have to recognize that education in our society is becoming less a means of bettering oneself and more a cultural delineation, a token of status that fails to signify any sort of substantive accomplishment. College is not and cannot be a trivial undertaking. It is our responsibility to make our college experiences worth something, because we certainly are paying for them as if they are.