Doubts rise about value of college

Like most colleges, Rocky Mountain College contemplates his future.

Spring classes cranked up this week at Rocky Mountain College, and I wonder why.

I go through this sort of mental mastication just about every semester. It’s no existential crisis: I like the work, and I can use the money. The students are mostly an appealing bunch, and I get a small kick out of being called “professor” and “doctor,” even though I am neither.

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David Crisp

My mental confusion results from larger issues: the growing concern, in light of higher tuition and declining public support, about whether college is worth it. That leads to the smaller but crucial question: Is what I’m doing worth it?

I am a tiny scrap in the tower of academia, a chink in the mortar on one of the lower floors. But at Rocky Mountain College, my halftime status gets me invited to the English department’s ongoing discussion of its curriculum. On most Friday afternoons, we ask ourselves: How do we attract more English majors? Do we need more practical writing courses, such as business writing? What do students need? What do they want? How do we market ourselves?

At Montana State University Billings, where I teach German, we worry about how to hold up enrollment when growing numbers of majors are dropping foreign language requirements. If a biology major doesn’t need a foreign language, we ask, why does an English major need to study biology?

More broadly, can students who have been exposed to only one language truly be educated? Everything we think and feel gets filtered through language. If students never try on a different filter, do they really know what they think and feel?

Average inflation-adjusted public college tuition rose 281 percent between 1973 and 2015. Median household income grew just 13 percent during that time. Between 2000 and 2012, state revenues for higher education fell $7,000 per full-time student to around $4,300.

Compared to those national figures, Montana sounds like paradise. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Montana was one of only five states in which funding for higher education actually increased between 2008 and 2017. Montana had the lowest inflation-adjusted tuition increase of all 50 states during those years. Even in last year’s budget-cutting special session, higher education got off relatively lightly.

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But we still feel the pain. Declining enrollment at the University of Montana and MSU Billings has cut into state funding. Rocky is far better off financially now than it was a few years ago, but small private colleges always struggle.

The federal government, which has picked up much of the slack in recent years from state funding declines, is an unlikely source for future help. Support for higher education has fallen dramatically in the last two years, with a solid majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents now saying that college has a negative effect on the country.

Doubts about college have arisen even within the academy. Recent studies show that students are less prepared when they come to college, study less while they are there and leave without having learned much. The value of education as a job credential, critics argue, persists mostly because it simply shows a willingness on the part of students to get out of bed and go to class every day.

Old teaching methods are mired in habits that date back to the Middle Ages, they argue. Those methods don’t work in today’s hyper-tech world, they say, and probably never did.

The counter-intuitive twist to the collapse of Republican faith in college is that they agree with Democrats by almost identical percentages that college taught them useful job skills, opened the doors to career opportunities and promoted their personal and intellectual growth. College was good for them, they agree, but it’s bad for the country.

The older and more conservative Republicans are, the more likely they are to hold negative views about college. This apparently is related to a belief that college inculcates liberal dogma into unshaped minds. Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to say that the main purpose of college should be to teach job skills and knowledge for the workplace rather than personal growth.

I’m never sure how this fits into what I do. I spend most of my time in what strikes me as a profoundly conservative endeavor: passing along to another generation the basic principles of rhetoric, grammar, punctuation and coherence. On the other hand, we also are starting this semester by reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

This requires at least a short journey into the history of the Congo, particularly under the brutal rule of King Leopold of Belgium in the late 19th century. I’m not sure if this qualifies as a liberal or conservative activity. Barack Obama was attacked by such conservative luminaries as Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and Dnesh D’Souza as an anti-colonialist ideologue.

Until that happened, I thought all Americans were anti-colonialists. Even if we weren’t, who will rise in defense of Leopold, whose contributions to world justice included allowing his surrogates to collect severed hands to prove that bullets weren’t being wasted on non-humans?

More to the point, I don’t know what the history of the Congo has to do with developing useful job skills or even aiding personal growth. Perhaps nothing. Instead, I hope, it helps students understand that this is a big and complicated world, where benevolent words and evil deeds often go hand in hand.

Maybe students won’t remember much of what I say, and maybe it won’t lead them to secure, good-paying jobs. What keeps me going is the hope that it will make them slightly better human beings.

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