Friday, April 4, 2014

The Sticker Price

My daughter planned a week-long spring-break road-trip and invited me to come along.  The invitation alone was a personal highlight--but the trip's been special too.  We flew from San Francisco to Boston, rented a car there, and visited eight different east coast colleges in five days.

As the trip ends tomorrow, I'm left with two very different and somewhat conflicted feelings.  

On the one hand, I'm enormously excited by Fiona's opportunities as she contemplates these next five years in her life.  Wow!  These are remarkable communities, with extraordinary teachers, and the possibilities for learning and meeting and growing are almost endless.  Three days ago, a student we met described meeting Sonia Sotomayor on campus and another gushed over an American history prof who makes history come alive.  Yesterday, we saw a new state-of-the-art library with study rooms for collaborative student projects--study rooms with white boards on all walls and computer links so colleagues can 'skype' in.  Everywhere we go, students talk about studying abroad and learning new languages and making friends from distant and once-unimagined lands.

But there's something else going on.  And I'm not sure I've worked it all out.

It has something to do with the $60,000 'sticker price' for a year at these schools.  (And, yes, this is precisely how at least two admissions officials described it.)  And it has something to do with their eagerness to impress us with all the ways that 'sticker price' could pay off in the long run.  Instead of offering an ambitious and far-reaching vision of the liberal arts, and instead of promising to teach our kids to think and communicate and read thoughtfully and write wisely, and instead of insisting college be a place where great leaders insist on responsible citizenship--instead we're often told there are no requirements at all, you can learn to write by taking a class on sitcoms, and basically it's all about engineering anyway.

OK, so I'm overstating things.  And a bit of cynicism leaks in.  But I'm asking about the huge responsibility these huge institutions have to the families and communities that pay huge bills to send their kids to college.  With all of their resources, with all the great minds and hearts they engage, shouldn't they commit to the training of great minds and great hearts, women and men who can think critically and creatively and participate energetically in civic life and neighborhood concerns?  Is it enough to train folks who are starting a dozen companies by age 22 and selling them for big profits by 25?  Is it enough to train folks who can design a retractable high heel--so that high heeled MBAs can walk comfortably down cobblestone pathways?  What about insisting on an educated sense of what democracy is and what it demands of us?  What about engaging all that diversity in a sustained conversation, an educated conversation, on the NSA and global warming and whether we're really cool with the demise of public education?

Don't get me wrong.  It's been a great week.  And I'm delighted my kids will get a chance to spend four years in communities that offer every imaginable field of study and all kinds of provocative opportunity.  But I guess I'm hoping for more than that.  I'm hoping for education.