We Need a More Nuanced Approach To Higher Education in America | Opinion

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

[In the Pairagraph debate,] I think I didn't so much lay out as position as I tried to reframe the question. I felt pretty overwhelmed by this very general question. So I tried to narrow it down to something more specific. The general question was, is college worth it? But as I was reflecting on that question, I just found myself asking again and again: worth it to whom?

Because higher ed is a very unequal landscape and at elite institutions in particular, I think we need to be self-aware that we're talking about institutional contexts that reproduce an unfairly privileged elite. And there's also a very big gap between the high-minded self-conception of these institutions and their actual practices and policies. And so I was trying to draw out some of that—so are we talking about whether or not it's worth it to adjunct faculty, who are basically exploited labor at most institutions? Are we talking about whether or not it's worth it to students who come in from working-class backgrounds, who find themselves very alienated in a lot of different respects from their peers? So I try to talk about that. I ask about parents, who are largely footing the increasingly astronomical and extreme tuition bills: Is it worth it to them? So really, I was trying to ask this question: worth it to whom?

I also wanted to bring up the student debt crisis because I just don't think we can talk about this question of whether or not college is worth it without considering that we've saddled at least two generations now with crippling debt for most of their adult life. And of course, my husband and I are included in that. We were, for most of our careers, academics who were still trying to figure out how to pay off their own student loans. So I wanted to narrow it down and then I ended up by saying, well, look, we can't really answer this question of "whether or not college is worth it" without asking worth it to whom—but then also asking, what is college for, right?

A person walks on the California State
A person walks on the California State University Long Beach (CSULB) campus before the return of students for Fall classes on August 11, 2021 in Long Beach, California. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Because if college really is just for job training, I think the question about whether or not it's worth it becomes even more of a vexed question. If a university of education becomes a kind of trade school, the question about why does it have to take four years and why does it have to cost so much— just to get a job— becomes an even more pressing question then if we stick to the old ways of thinking about what higher learning is. So that was basically where I started.

I think there are way too many people in college who are not equipped to succeed for a variety of reasons, usually for lack of a decent education prior to college. And also because they don't know why they're there and they don't really have the resources for figuring out why they're there. I think that if universities did a better job of making that distinction salient to parents and to prospective students, the difference between higher learning and just acquiring a trade, I think that we would all be better off because I think it would help people discern better whether or not they need to go to college.

However, having said that, I do think it's complicated. I'm from a working-class background—my father drove a forklift for most of his adult life at a paper mill. So he does not have a college education. And when the Rust Belt began to be evacuated of manufacturing jobs, people like my dad were stuck really without any opportunities and without really any sense of what to do. When you lose your livelihood at 50, there's no time for you really to go back to school or learn to code or whatever. So I do recognize that it was incredibly difficult for my father, without any kind of college degree, to find a decent job after that. And that has been devastating for him, and has prevented him from being able to retire and all sorts of other things. And so I think it's not just the responsibility of the universities. It's not just that the universities have maybe overvalued a university degree. I think a lot of employers have also overvalued it. I mean, there's no reason why a lot of good jobs should require a B.A., and yet they do.

Jennifer Frey is an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of South Carolina.

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