College students focus on tuition, payoff
It used to be that what I worried about most when I taught freshmen was whether they were prepared for college. These days, though, I have an entirely different fear.
I worry that the price of college is making my students think ahead when they ought to be enjoying the moment. It is to their credit that today's students worry as much as they do about imposing on their parents and graduating heavily in debt. They are being both realistic and considerate.
Most parents are making a sacrifice when they send their sons and daughters to college. Between 1950 and 1970, a public university cost about 4 percent of a family's income. Today, that figure is 11 percent, and naturally much higher in private universities. As for student debt, it exceeds $1 trillion.
The problem is, if students focus too early on which course will have the biggest job payoff or make for the most impressive resumé, they lose the chance to follow their imaginations - even more important, they lose the chance to surprise themselves. It is no accident that, according to college health authorities, this generation's drugs of choice are attention-deficit medications. Students aren't looking to escape. They are looking to be more competitive.
In late August, Georgia Tech sophomore Nicholas Selby made the news when, in a welcoming speech to the freshman class, he said, "Our mission is not to follow in the footsteps of the astronauts, Nobel Prize laureates, and presidents who graduated before us, but to exceed their footsteps, crush the shoulders of the giants upon whom we stand."
Selby's talk, delivered with the theme from Star Wars playing in the background, had the quality of a send-up of all that colleges overpromise, but it raised an interesting question: Is there a way to balance involvement in the world of ideas and new experiences that colleges offer with the reality of an America still mired in recession? With research showing that a student who graduates owing $100,000 in loans will not break even until he's 34, that's a question that needs answering.
Oregon is trying to deal with this problem with a pilot program in which, instead of paying tuition at a state college, students would, after graduation, pay a percentage of their income back for a limited number of years. The program, "Pay It Forward, Pay It Back," would profit from students who got rich, but it would also allow students to become teachers and social workers without fearing that they will never get out of debt.
I hope we have more experiments like Oregon's, but I also hope students will become bolder in pointing out where they are being abused. For example, earlier this year, more than a thousand students at New York University signed a petition asking the school to stop advertising unpaid internships on campus.
As a teacher, part of my job is to help my students prepare for life after college. Above all, though, I'm there to teach well enough for them to be absorbed by the books that are part of our class today.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower." E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.