The Cost of College

By Elijah Chiland

Two weeks ago, President Brian Rosenberg published an article in The Huffington Post entitled, “Will Dropouts Save America? No.” It was a response to an op-ed by Michael Ellsberg that appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 23. In this piece, Ellsberg argues that college has ceased to be useful for a large part of the American workforce. For specialized professionals like doctors, lawyers, and professors, college is a worthy and necessary investment. However, those searching for work in other fields might be better served by saving their money. Rosenberg counters these arguments fairly successfully in his response, pointing out the statistically higher incomes of college graduates and lower rates of unemployment. He also points out that a liberal arts education, in particular, can foster creative skills that are invaluable in any number of professions. What Rosenberg’s response does not address is the underlying problem at the base of Ellsberg’s argument: college is too expensive. In recent years higher education has been increasingly scrutinized, and Ellsberg is one of many to suggest that college may not be worth the price of admission. These critiques are largely a product of uncertainty in the job market and a technology industry dominated by high-profile college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. However, to me, this skepticism about the benefits of higher education seems deeply rooted in the fact that it is simply not a viable option for many Americans. The total cost of two semesters at Macalester is currently $54,315. According to the 2010 Census, the median American household income is $49,445. While Macalester is one of 70 schools nationwide committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated need, the fact that the full sticker price is significantly more than most Americans make in a year is alarming. Moreover, students receiving financial aid are still expected to pay sums that place great strain on their families and often place them in significant debt. Macalester certainly deserves credit for providing the type of financial assistance that it does, and it is true that tough financial choices must be made to keep this school operating at a high level of quality. But many other schools do not make the same guarantees that Macalester does, and I have met many students (at Macalester and at other colleges) who have dropped out or transferred simply because they could not afford to keep paying the high cost of their education. At this year’s convocation, former U.S. vice-president Walter Mondale described his own inability to pay Macalester tuition, and his subsequent transfer to the University of Minnesota. I do not have any doubts about the value of the education I have received at Macalester. It has deeply shaped me as a person. Yet, at times, I have had to consider the possibility of leaving Macalester for financial reasons. While I fully support President Rosenberg in his defense of higher education’s usefulness, I wonder whether higher education has an obligation to meet its critics halfway. It is time to think long and hard about how college can continue to provide students with valuable life skills without disenfranchising those with less economic opportunities.