Higher Education Is Indispensable and Deeply Meaningful if Done Properly | Opinion

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Michael Roth during a Newsweek podcast debate on higher education. You can listen to the podcast here:

Like Jennifer, I think it's best to ask a less general question: for whom and in what context? I think it is worth encouraging as many people as possible to get a good college education. I do believe that. And I don't disagree with Jennifer that people participate in higher education in different ways, and some get very little out of it and wind up, as she rightly points out, saddled with debt. Like Jennifer, I had a student loan and I didn't pay it off, and so I was a faculty member making an unbelievably little bit of money in those days. Although on the other hand, I felt like I couldn't believe I was getting paid to do something I love to do so much. I don't know how Jennifer feels, but I I feel like that loan was worth it actually, because it allowed me to get a Ph.D. and to pursue the things I think are really important and beautiful and satisfying to share with other people.

Unfortunately, many people—here, I think Jennifer and I agree—experience college in quite a different way. They are saddled with debt, don't have preparation for a job and don't get to discover things that they think give meaning to their lives or allow them to engage in purposeful work. And they, of course, suffer from a college industry that can be quite exploitative to many people. I do want to say, though, that a lot of the student debt crisis is driven by a for-profit college industry that has used the guarantee of federally insured student loans to just be predatory lenders. They're not really educational institutions. And public institutions have reduced the public support for higher education in many states, so that students are paying more.

The price tag has wildly outstripped inflation because rich people should pay a lot for college, I believe. That's one of the only ways we redistribute wealth—rich people should pay a ton for college. And at the elite schools, low-income students pay nothing. And I think that's a good thing. It's even better when you don't ask people to pay and you don't ask them to borrow. Because for people who are just starting out with little prospect for earning lots of money, debt is an awful thing. It doesn't have to be an expensive waste of time. And I don't think learning is a waste of time. I think the idea that only rich people should be able to experience the benefits of learning—whether that's about math and science, or whether it's about literature and philosophy—that's a huge mistake.

Patrick T. FALLON / AFP
Patrick T. FALLON / AFP PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

In fact, the wage premium for college-educated people has only grown over time. And although it is true that there's a significant percentage of people with a college degree who aren't working in the jobs that they would desire to, when you compare that to people with only a high school degree, you have a different set of calculations. But I don't think the only reason you go to college is to futz around. I think this is why many people find college not worth it. That is, if you go to college, so as to be able to learn how to be better prepared for the worst job you'll ever have—which is the first job you'll have after college—it probably won't be worth it for you.

Even if you have a lot of great parties and then you get a nice internship, I don't think it's worth the investment of that period of your life. What would it be worth it if you go to college, and get out of college, the kinds of things that would allow you—for the rest of your life—to draw on the education that you've started to experience? That you've acquired the habits of mind and spirit that you continue to learn, and that doesn't have to be that expensive. But in the United States, there is a premium place on, fancy schools with fancy things that do attract people with money and sometimes attract people who will try to get into those places through debt. And that is a sad occurrence, but I think college is worth it if you don't think of it as a finishing school or a trade school.

Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.