Cost of College a Problem But Diversity Issue More Serious

Updated Dec 8, 2014

I watched the CNN documentary Ivory Tower over Thanksgiving, and it was a fair portrayal of many of the key issues weighing down higher ed.

But I thought it spent too much time time on the crushing costs of college and student debt.

Sure, that’s an issue. For elite schools that costs around $60,000 a year, even with scholarships, the debt load still could be well over $100,000 for many

But it forces the documentary’s main focus toward the question, Is college worth it?

If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be looking for a job on this site.

But since we live in the 21st century, and all problems and inefficiencies are solved with technology, the film ends ups giving a lot of time to the people I call the “disruptors in vogue.”

Peter Thiel’s ideas of eschewing college and being part of a high-tech co-op house of young entrepreneurs gets extensive treatment.

Considering Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, it really isn’t all that bad idea. If you’re Bill Gates and you’re well-heeled, tech-bent and White.

The film also showcases technology as an answer with online courses.

Again, sounds good in theory. But the example in the film showed how San Jose State’s use of a private online vender for courses failed dismally.

That sounds about right to me.

There’s no replacement for an in-person student teacher relationship. Example: I’m still friends with the writer Ishmael Reed, who was my teacher in graduate school.

I didn’t even have a computer back then. But if I did, it would have already been thrown it into the e-trash next to my Apple II. (And all of it, next to my typewriter, with which I also no longer have a relationship).

Where the documentary scores are in segments on David Boone, an African-American kid from Cleveland whose family was homeless.

But he had good grades and received a scholarship to Harvard.

School wasn’t easy for him, but as he went back to Cleveland for the holidays, he wasn’t giving up.

College, never mind Harvard, was his ticket out and into the middle class and beyond. New universes.

I could relate. I was a kid from San Francisco’s Mission District who got the same Ivy treatment. It changed my life.

That’s what people need to realize when they get mired in the dollars and cents/student debt conversation.

Yes, it’s bad.

But for most people of color, there is no question. You need college.

It doesn’t have to be Harvard. But if you’re a person of color, a college degree — from anywhere — is like your hall pass in life. It is the gas in your car. It will get you somewhere.

Without a college degree, life is definitely tougher.

For the economics of it all, Robert Reich wrote this in his blog last month:

“Last year, Americans with four-year college degrees earned on average 98 percent more per hour than people without college degrees.

“In the early 1980s, graduates earned 64 percent more.

“So even though college costs are rising, the financial return to a college degree compared to not having one is rising even faster.

“But here’s the qualification, and it’s a big one.

“A college degree no longer guarantees a good job. The main reason it pays better than the job of someone without a degree is the latter’s wages are dropping.

“In fact, it’s likely that new college graduates will spend some years in jobs for which they’re overqualified.

“According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 46 percent of recent college graduates are now working in jobs that don’t require college degrees. (The same is true for more than a third of college graduates overall.)”

So the problem isn’t college so much. It’s really the state of the economy and our shrinking middle class.

Reich says it is in “lousy shape.”

How else can you describe a society where the top continues to get more, and everyone else gets squeezed?

Ivory Tower doesn’t get into this aspect so much. But in seeing the kid from Cleveland, you know he’s much better off in college than not.

As Reich said:

“Given all this, a college degree is worth the cost because it at least enables a young person to tread water. Without the degree, young people can easily drown.

“Some young college graduates will make it into the top 1 percent. But that route is narrower than ever. The on-ramp often requires the right connections (especially parents well inside the top 1 percent).”

So it’s great for one-percenters like Peter Thiel of PayPal to pooh-pooh college to all his elite buddies from Stanford.

But for the rest of us, the “Who needs college?” argument is a bit of a distracting red herring.

Indeed the real problem is making sure higher ed stays true to its main responsibility to educate all of society.

We shouldn’t be seeking ways to discount and gimmick the rest of us with subpar offerings.

The documentary, through the David Boone story, shows where higher ed can still get it right.

But this question remains the ongoing challenge of institutions everywhere: How do we make the tower less ivory, and a whole lot more inclusive and diverse?

Emil Guillermo writes on issues of race, culture and politics for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (www.aaldef.org/blog). Like him at www.facebook.com/emilguillermo.media; https://twitter.com/emilamok.