A few weeks ago, I told my freshman composition class that we needed to have a talk. Those were the words I used — “We need to have a talk” — as though we were in a relationship, and we’d been failing each other in obscure ways that needed to be articulated. The class groaned.
They had a point. A mandatory writing class at a small state college generally isn’t the place for a heart-to-heart. But we were midway through the semester, and their motivation was flagging. An atmosphere of sullen resistance had emerged — resistance to doing homework, resistance to class discussion. It wasn’t clear what they wanted from the class. And, more broadly, it wasn’t clear what they wanted from college. Perhaps to remind myself why I was there as a professor, I needed to know why they were there as students.
“Why are you here?” I asked them, “Why are you in college?”
“It’s a Monday,” one young man said, sweeping the hair from his eyes, “Do we need to answer that right now?” A young woman added, “You want to start an existential crisis?”
I repeated the question.
Their answers were what you might expect. Pressure from their parents, pressure from the culture at large (including the president, who continues to tout college as the ticket to the American Dream), and pressure from their own fears about their financial futures. They also mentioned cultivating their minds, learning to think critically — but those were secondary concerns, reasons why they wanted to be there, not why they needed to be.
What I didn’t expect, though, was the fierceness of their anxiety. “College is the way to a good job,” one student said, “that’s what everyone keeps telling us. But then the actual news is always about the economy, unemployment rates, student debt.” The class fell so quiet we could hear the construction project across campus.
The statistics, indeed, are grim. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 8.5 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed. Perhaps more disturbing, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York stated in a recent report that roughly 44 percent of recent graduates—meaning those aged 22 to 27 — hold jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree. To make matters worse, those types of jobs — for example, bartender, bike messenger, barista — are paying less than they did in the past. What this means is that the lag-time between graduation and employment commensurate with a college degree is getting longer and harder to afford. Hence the more than $1 trillion in US student loan debt and the abundance of stories about college grads moving back in with Mom and Dad.
In response to these statistics and stories, higher education has been under siege. What, really, is the value of studying Shakespeare or Plato? Why not save money and get a degree online? Why get a degree at all? In articles, books, and graduation speeches, academics have scurried to defend themselves and the liberal arts tradition. They’ve debated the role of college — to prepare students for the workforce, or to make good citizens, or to develop students’ souls — and many of them have concluded, albeit with differing ratios, that college should do all three. Most recently, in an opinion piece in USA Today, Harvard president Drew Faust wrote, “The value of higher education is embodied by people who dream bigger and achieve more, who create their own futures and shape their own destinies.”
Such are the advertisements for college that students hear again and again. (And there’s little else Faust, given her position, might have written.) But such brochure lyricism isn’t of much help to students once they walk into the classroom. It’s not helpful because students, particularly at the non-elite colleges and universities, don’t believe it.
That’s what my students were telling me. What had lurked beneath their resistance towards committing to college was now in the open. And their ambivalence wasn’t just about the future, about an investment that might or might not pay off, but about the sacrifices they were already making. Most of them, like nearly 80 percent of their fellow students across the country, work part-time jobs. One of my students works on a turkey farm — it’s the busy season now. Another works at Starbucks — it’s always the busy season. Every week, they’re making hard choices between shifts and study time, between a paycheck now and the shaky promise of a career later.
Given the conflicting pressures on them and the lack of future guarantees, I could hardly give them the old liberal arts speech. And yet, there we were — in a classroom, professor and students, books in front of us.
And then I remembered something from my own liberal arts education. The root of the word “student,” I told them, comes from Latin and means “to be eager.” Eager in the sense of being curious, of asking questions. Questions, ultimately, about how to develop a framework for understanding the world around you — which means not just Shakespeare and Plato, but the economy, parental pressure, politics.
Some students were still smirking at the eagerness part, but it didn’t strike them as such a bad idea. It didn’t strike them as secondary.
We were back at the beginning, back at the intrinsic reason for being a student. That was all we could focus on, all we could control.
We got back to work.
Read essays from Howard Axelrod’s students on how today’s economy affects their college experience.