I am approaching my impending graduation with the sort of aloofness that is probably more appropriate for an impending visit to the DMV. Because I am slated to begin law school this fall, my mind is already wrapped up in basic practical issues related to this important transition in my life and also in figuring out exactly what I will do after law school. It’s simply natural that there come points in one’s life where one feels ready for the next challenge, for the next transformative experience, while simultaneously not looking with regret at finishing up the task at hand. If one stays too long in the same station, doing the same thing over and over, then one loses the spark and drive that come with embarking on new roads and trying new things. That’s why I am not sad at all to leave Concordia. Thanks to the miraculous technology at our disposal, it is easier for me now more than at any other time in human history to stay in touch with the very small circle of professors, mentors, and friends who have impacted me in many ways during my time here. I have no doubt that we will meet again. Part of the reason that I am so aloof, however—and I acknowledge that this will sound petty to those who point out that I am a privileged recipient of a college education—is that I have become disenchanted with higher education as it is practiced in this country today. “Bubble” is a very apt term one can use to describe it; misguided federal policymaking aimed at making higher education “more affordable” by funneling gargantuan sums of money to universities in the form of subsidies and tuition assistance has directly caused the atrocious tuition inflation that we now observe. Student debt now exceeds $1 trillion and annually drives tens of thousands of graduates into financial ruin. Even as the increasingly challenging realities of the job market constrain the career prospects of recent graduates, American universities have gone on an incomprehensibly reckless spending sprees that, in my opinion, cannot be justified in light of the present economic circumstances. One can easily access data revealing the surprising multiplication of seemingly useless administrative positions and the rise of spending on new buildings and athletic facilities in a phenomenon that one interesting column in the Los Angeles Times on April 21 referred to as “country club colleges.” Now, no one should question for a moment the established truth that, generally, higher education continues to add significant value to the economy by preparing young people ready to compete in the 21st century innovation economy and has a measurable impact on earning potential throughout a graduate’s lifetime.
What we ought to question, however, is whether the drastic growth in higher education spending that has ironically made it less affordable for students to attend college has produced desirable results that we should continue. We should also question whether parents and schools ought to be steering more students toward traditional four-year colleges when more and more data indicate that there are literally millions of unfilled high-paying technical jobs waiting for qualified candidates from technical and vocational schools. The market is telling us something important: our higher education priorities are not in order. We are investing in the wrong things, and underinvesting in crucial areas that require greater attention.
I fully acknowledge that, as a privileged recipient of a liberal arts education, it seems out of place for me to criticize the underlying assumptions and practices of American higher education and suggest that liberal arts colleges in particular are providing less of a value than they suggest. But here at Concordia, I think the spirit of “responsible engagement in the world” demands that we deepen conversations about the value of a liberal arts degree in a way that doesn’t necessarily assume its inherent worth from the outset. Perhaps places like Concordia need to reevaluate the emphasis they place on traditional humanities-related subjects and promote science; perhaps they should spend less money on music and athletics and steer more resources toward professions that are slated to grow drastically in the coming years (such as computer science, a field whose absence from this campus baffles every person who understands the value knowledge of coding and programming have in the 21st century innovation-based economy). Perhaps, instead of expending resources to make students physically comfortable during their stays on campus, maximal efforts should be taken to constrain unnecessary spending and control growth in tuition rates. Perhaps, rather than congratulating itself for producing graduates dedicated to the life of the mind and committed to vague Christian values, Concordia ought to really evaluate, at its core, the inherent value of what it does.
There are many immensely talented individuals at this institution. My greatest wish for Concordia is that it emerge as a leader, an innovator and a model other institutions are eager to emulate. I think that part of that leadership must include a role in reforming American higher education and the way it is funded and organized. There must be a greater role for the market to determine which professions and fields receive emphasis in funding. There must be a serious moral debate about the desirability of continually raising the cost of education. Above all, there must be a way for people aware of these realities to step into leadership roles and influence the policy scene today. The competitive future of the U.S., together with the lives of millions of students and recent graduates, are at stake.