News that Middlebury College's annual per-pupil cost will soon rise past the $50,000 mark isn't an unexpected shocker-after all, it was within easy striking distance last year at $49,210, so getting to $50,780 is merely a walking-around-money increase.
But a nice round number like $50K is a benchmark of sorts, and raises once again all the time-honored questions about the purpose, value, and cost of a college education.
Typically, it's called an "investment" with further elaboration directed at either the (supposed) resulting broadening of knowledge, outlook, and understanding, or the first step toward professional skill, recognition, and reward in some vocational endeavor. Frequently the two are rhetorically mixed together, presumably so the listener won't know whether there's supposed to be a return on the investment and what form that return should take.
Maybe that's because there used to be a measurable social distance between those who entered the halls of ivy to take their rightful places as gentlemen even more fully conversant with the five-foot shelf of Western Civilization, and those of us who were, unforgiveably, mixing some professional-vocation (dare I say trade-school) education in with our purely liberal arts exposures to historical verities. I'm told there still is, which perhaps explains why the public-relations experts in higher education describe their course offerings with oblique phrases like enabling students to "enhance their professional potential" or the slightly more direct "prepare for government...or private-sector careers".
In today's halls of ivy, Western Civ doesn't have the cachet it once had. Now-retired-from-Wellesley Classics educator Mary Lefkowitz was prominently ostracized and even sued for daring to object to the politically correct Afro-centric notion that everything the ancient Greeks supposedly invented or wrote or designed had been stolen from advanced sub-Saharan civilizations. Thus, fifth-century B.C. (we happily shun the P.C. use of BCE) Greeks presumably sneaked peeks inside the fourth-century B.C. Library at Alexandria which, unfortunately for the Afro-centrists' comprehension of chronology, hadn't even been built when Socrates supposedly removed archival documents, Sandy-Berger-style, from it.
Instead, today's institutes of higher learning prefer to convey such notions as "counter-hegemony", "imperialistic legacy", and of course "the dialogic process of being human". The quotes come from the American Educational Research Association, a professorial group in which unrepentant past bomb-tosser/ present education-prof William Ayers is an honored member. As an equally unrepentant Lefkowitz supporter and Western Civ enthusiast, I choose to let that matter be and focus instead on the crassly fiscal side of the higher-ed cost-benefit equation. How does paying Middlebury $50K for four years, a total of $200K, work out in terms of career profitability and future retirement security, compared with putting the same amount into market investments and watching them grow, under the magic of compound interest, for the 44 years between graduation age 21 and retirement age 65?
The answer can be found on the Web (www.ameriprise.com) in the form of a savings calculator. If you plug the cost of an A.B., $200,000 (four years of tuition at full sticker price) into the formula, and instead invest and grow it at 6% for 44 years, it shows that the now-65-year-old retiree has a nest-egg of $2.8 million. Actually, 6% growth is a bit conservative, because the long-term investment history of the equities markets has been just over 8%. Let's equally conservatively have the retiree live off his earnings at 5%: that would be an annual stipend of $140,000 without even touching the principal. If the would-be-student had been planning on paying half the sticker price, and then chose not to, the formula would start with $100,000 not spent for tuition and end up with a nest-egg of $1.4 million, The annual retiree stipend would be $70,000. And if the would-be-student had avoided four years of a $12,500 tuition cost, his nest-egg would start with $50,000, grow to $700,000 by retirement, and throw off $35,000 in annual passive income. By way of comparison, median personal income in Vermont was $37,000 in 2007, mostly actively earned, not passively received.
Actually, the numbers don't fully answer the question. A student who has to borrow and re-pay his tuition costs will end up worse off, financially, than the above examples show; and one sufficiently skillful networking-wise to parlay even full-sticker-price tuition into an upper-floor corner-with-views corporate office will end up much better off. A student majoring in Medieval Lit will face a lower career-long wage-scale than one selecting a more vocational endeavor: engineering, physics, geology.
But then, money isn't everything-for those of a scholarly bent, there may be more personal satisfaction in Chaucer, de Troyes, and Malory than in bridges, reactors, or drill-cores.
Former Vermonter Martin Harris lives in Tennessee.