Is College Over?

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

ONE AFTERNOON THIS SUMMER, I return to my alma mater, Boston College, and am greeted by a banner welcoming the class of 2015, which hangs over the dining hall on Lower Campus—a dining hall now flanked by two buildings that didn’t exist when I was at school more than a decade ago.

I’ve come back to BC to meet with Patrick Rombalski, the vice president of student affairs, because I keep hearing about BC’s assessment efforts from the experts I’ve been interviewing. But I want to ask a more basic question: Was it worth it?

In the course of reporting this story, I’ve thought more than once about my monthly student loan payments, wondering if, as Matt Damon’s character Will Hunting once posited, I could have saved all that money and paid late charges at the public library instead. (BC’s total cost has only gone up since I left; now $54,528 a year, it’s the most expensive in Boston.) Coincidentally, the issue of the Chronicle with the “Crisis of Confidence” cover story is sitting on a coffee table in the lounge outside Rombalski’s office.

Dressed in a button-down and khakis, Rombalski is slim, with close-cropped hair and an eager smile. He begins telling me how BC is working to create a 24-hour learning environment. From its residence halls to academic advising, the school is developing new ways to engage students, asking them how they’re doing, what they want from school, what their goals are. The school is encouraging students to reflect on their academic experiences, and training the faculty to better understand how people learn.

This all sounds lovely, but it also frustrates me. It makes me want to go back to school and do it over, perhaps even do it better. So I air all of my concerns: I tell Rombalski about my experience sorting out my major, my trials with student advising, how I worry I’ll still be paying my student loans when my own kids go to college—everything all the way back to the missed opportunity to learn more about professors during my original campus tour. On that last point, he pauses. “I don’t get a lot of questions about that,” he admits, perhaps making a mental note for another area of improvement.

I tell Rombalski that when I finished college, I felt like I’d read a lot of really great books and that my writing had gotten stronger, but I didn’t feel like I had certifiable proof of what I’d learned.

“You didn’t know what you didn’t know,” he says, nodding. “And if you’re going to spend four years in a place, you want to make sure that you’re covered.”

He’s right. We don’t know what we don’t know. But if we’re not thinking about learning, if we’re not making dramatic strides in improving it and testing it and proving that it’s still worthwhile, should we be surprised that more and more of us are losing faith in higher education?

College isn’t a fairy tale. Many of us no longer believe in the magical tower on the hill, which is probably a good thing. If we can see college for what it really is—an investment that has the potential not to pay off—we’ll start asking the tough questions…and demanding answers. And that may be the closest we can get to guaranteeing a happy ending.  

  • Kate

    I enjoyed reading this article, especially since it supports what I’ve always suspected. I got a B.S. degree from a well regarded college (now university) near Boston and don’t feel that I learned much of anything. I transferred to said college from a community college in upstate NY and feel that I learned so much more from my professors there – at about 1/20 the cost. Now I’m trying to navigate my own children’s education and am finding it difficult to discern between the hype and the substance.

  • Peter

    An article about the diminishing value of a college education that doesn’t mention Richard Vedder? Homework not done, I think.

  • Millie

    You are paying to be a member of a private club where you might meet a suitable mate, share specific good times, and leave with a document which might impress a specific circle of people. Learning in today’s world is not restricted to any single campus. Other authors have attested to the value of access to good libraries. And that may be negotiated for much less than $56K.

  • Mike

    College is definitely overpriced, overrated, and outdated.

    This is why I’m producing a documentary, The Elephant on Campus, which about the need for higher education reform in America.

    College is no longer the best path for success. It’s only good for a small percentage of people that want to study areas such as medicine, law, and engineering. All the other majors are a waste of time and money.

    It’s time that people wake up to the fact that college isn’t what it used to be. For most people it will turn into a horrible investment that leaves them with a worthless degree and a mountain of debt that will never be paid off by that “higher education” college was supposed to give them.

  • Dan

    The first comment is telling: I liked the article because it confirmed what I believe. That’s the trouble with higher ed journalism of late — it’s all about jumping on bandwagons with a few anecdotes. There’s really nothing new and nothing analytic here. The “there no there there” trope is only interesting when supported by facts and argument and here it is not.

  • Stephen

    According to the US News and the Boston Globe, Tufts University–not BC–is the most expensive in Boston:

    http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities/spp+50

  • Karen

    More people are “jumping” on this bandwagon because the cost of an education should not put you in debt for the rest of your life. Period. See this facebook group forgivestudentloandebt.com