Friday, May 7, 2010

In which I riff on college costs and creativity

Just finished the Smithsonian magazine article on Wayne B. Wheeler, the forgotten man behind Prohibition. Though the story was full of interesting facts—like the strange political alliances that formed between progressives and southern racists—the fact that grabbed me most was this:

Wheeler had put himself through Oberlin College by working as a waiter, janitor, teacher and salesman.

There’s no way that someone could pay their way through Oberlin on a janitor’s salary anymore. I’m keenly aware of this since my teenage son just finished going through the college admissions process. He was accepted at several prestigious private colleges but decided in the end that he couldn’t take on $60-70K of student loan debt (this with $20k/year scholarships and his dad and I chipping in and/or borrowing several thousand dollars ourselves), so he’s going to an in-state university.

That’s because the tuition at Oberlin and similar-sized private colleges is $40K/year; throw in room and board and you’re looking at more than 50 grand a year—$200,000 for an undergraduate education.

I don’t see how anyone who wants to be a writer or an artist—and doesn’t come from a wealthy family—could ever consider going to a private college these days. Which means that lower-income would-be writers are probably flooding larger state universities, and that small colleges are probably going to be depleted of the artsy, middle-class refugees I hung out with in college.

What’s the problem with this scenario? It’s not just the idea that the rich will be rubbing elbows with the rich only at the smaller colleges—I imagine it’s always been like that in the Ivies. But some of the smaller colleges were noted for their quirky, idealistic student bodies and I imagine that with more homogeneity of class, the quirkiness will be smoothed over, the idealism will give way to pragmatism. Last year, Reed College started to reject worthy students simply for economic reasons.

If you are going into massive student loan debt, I bet it's less likely you'll be studying classical Greek or even (the old standby of the indecisive) English Literature. And Creative Writing? Forget about it.

Maybe the state universities will become creatively richer as a result, but I really doubt it. Most of my son's friends are planning to major in Engineering. Thank goodness he's going in Undecided, wanting to study Psychology or English or something, just wanting to read and talk with people and absorb everything, doodling and writing jokes on the side. Maybe he'll end up in a major that's also the name of a job, but for now he has the luxury of creating and learning whatever strikes his fancy.

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