June is an odd month in the life of a part-time college professor, and according to recent statistics, nearly 70% of us in all institutions of higher learning across the US are part-time. That’s private, public, and for-profit; two-year, four-year; research and technical, on up to Ivy League.
The part-timer (and some full-timers too, it is true) does not have the clean break that many outsiders might expect. Graduation is sometime in late May, but in a rural community college, enrollment something under 3000, the place doesn’t descend into academic quiescence only to bustle to life again with the promise of Labor Day. For many — the Financial Aid people, the facilities people, student services, admins, the library staff — June tootles along in a mode not that different from, say, February. Slightly quieter, and of course nothing like the rumble of activity during registration, or midterms, or finals, but the bills still have to be paid and the servers kept up and running and the floors waxed and the HVAC humming and yesterday’s papers in the library swapped for today’s. This is one of the reasons why I bite my lower lip when I read or hear people outside of academics (I’m deliberately not going to use the word “academia” in this piece, as I believe it carries connotations) use the expression “real-life” to refer to everything outside of schools. You know — real jobs, real-life situations, real-world experience — all euphemisms for the private sector. I could supply some examples of this usage, but while they’d be accurate they’d be no more significant than my assertion that they exist, since I’d be getting them from what I think of as casual sources — letters to editors, internet forums, TV commercials. I’m too circumspect to try to make a case based on this kind of ephemera, so I’m trusting that if you know what I’m talking about you don’t need citation, and if you don’t know you probably don’t need the inquiry I’m about to make anyway because it’s outside your scope of concern.
This is not going to be a piece in which I justify the value of higher education in America. That’s too big a task for June. All I’d like to do is carve a sensible middle path through some of the popular arguments and one-size-fits-all answers that all too often show up in modern debate. (I even wish I didn’t have to use the word debate, but I do. I would much prefer that the conversation regarding higher education were being conducted as an inquiry, since that’s my professional modus operandi, but I look and listen and read and can only truthfully if sadly report that most of it is conducted as debate and not inquiry. I can tell the difference usually by a simple test — it’s inquiry if I end with more questions than when I started; it’s debate if I end with two relatively monolithic positions coalescing on either side, and when the expression of either position makes me bite my lower lip. That is symptomatic.)
If you’ve engaged with the topic at all, you might know some of the key phrases which spark debate and thus polarization. I’d like to examine some of them. I promise this is in good faith — my only prejudice is, I believe, an innocuous one and so general as to be inoffensive to all interested parties; to wit, Higher Education has an effect on America. The inquiry, if sound, might lead us to ask more specific and meaningful questions such as “In what way?” and “Does that indicate actions that need to be taken?” — but that’s for the other end of the inquiry, not the top of it. I’m hoping that no matter where you’ve previously positioned yourselves in earlier debates that you can ride along with me on that assertion — it matters. Yes? We’re OK? Good, let’s go.
Item One: Higher Education Costs Money. Unadorned like that, not a controversial statement, but to conduct a genuine and sincere inquiry we’ll have to do better than that. I’ve heard phrases like “Higher education costs too much money.” I’ve seen retorts that community colleges are affordable. Mingled within are various opinions on the utilitarian value of the education at its price; and often a point goes undistinguished: does it cost too much for the student? The parent? The taxpayer? Is the excessive cost a question of its retail price, or of its outlay and expenses? Is profit involved, and, if so, where and for whom? Also, another essential question of economics goes unasked — what kind of return on investment is (or ought to be) expected from a non-commodity commodity like “an education”? I would like to suggest that just these three variables — for whom, from whom, and with what expected return — renders the discussion almost impossibly complex. For a recent veteran with a career idea in her mind and a recognition that, reasonable or not, a prospective employer wants certification from somewhere other than the US Armed Forces, the education has a specific value and, if she can afford it or be helped to afford it, she’s probably not going to spend much time debating whether it should cost as much as it does to whomever it will ultimately cost — herself, the community, the US debt. On the other hand, to the suburban high school junior, who perhaps has taken his SATs in a blur of unconsidered expectation and careless obedience to What Is Done, when he sits down with pamphlets and applications and that damned essay to write, he can be forgiven for wondering if the personal expense to his parents or the potential for debilitating loans is Worth It. But while I am using hypotheticals here, I want to hurriedly point out (so hurriedly in fact that I’ve split an infinitive in the process) that these two people are Not Typical. More anecdote: I’ve been teaching in the same two-year college for going on eleven years. I can see patterns and spot samenesses but even within my small and not terribly diverse sample I would hesitate to say that anything applied to “a lot” or “most” or “a majority” or anything other than the utterly reasonable and cautious “Some” — a categorical term which literally means at least one, and at most fewer than all. And all due respect for the social sciences, but even when we do get numbers which are more descriptive than that, when we debate/inquire out here in Regular People Land we really never get any more precise than Some. Anything else could be too easily contradicted — and as soon as it is, the debate appears to be over; at least points have been scored, and the inquiry grinds to a halt. When that happens I always want to hold up a sign that says, Let’s Look At That in a Different Way. (On the other side it, like Wile E. Coyote’s sign, says “Yikes!” but that’s for my personal entertainment only and in no way contributes to the inquiry.)