Andrew Delbanco's new book "College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be" offers an emphatic defense of the institution of college and presents a compelling argument that higher education has become one necessity young adults cannot afford to forgo. College training has irrefutable benefits to the student, he says in an interview with The Daily Ticker, but society as a whole advances from an intellectually literate populace.
"We need and want the best educated population we can have for a lot of different reasons," he says. "We cannot have a democracy without an educated citizenry. We cannot have a political system that works if we don't have a population that say knows the difference between a dogmatic opinion or a demagogic speaker and somebody who makes arguments based on evidence. We need people who can think critically about what they're being told."
Delbanco's assertions, much like President Obama's recent comments about college, could be misconstrued as elitist but Delbanco, a professor of American studies at Columbia University, maintains that a college degree confers verifiable advantages.
"College should be a place not only where you gain the competence and the skills you need to compete in the economy which is increasingly a global, knowledge economy," he says. "There's a lot of evidence that even a little college (1 or 2 years, he notes) translates into higher lifetime income, even better health, happier marriages."
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in March for those with at least a bachelor's degree was 4.4 percent — almost half of the nation's 8.2 percent jobless rate. For individuals with a little college or an associate's degree the rate increases to 7.7 percent; the ratio for high school graduates jumps to 10.5 percent.
The value of a college degree in this economy has encouraged more Americans to either return to school for a secondary degree or to attend school for the first time — but at a steep price. Private and public universities have greatly increased tuition fees and many universities are reducing student services or curtailing enrollment because of state and federal budget cuts. A preliminary report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau determined that outstanding student loan debt exceeded $1 trillion in the fourth quarter of 2011 — surpassing for the first time the amount Americans owe on credit card or car loans. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, people age 50 and older are still paying off almost $135 billion in student loans and the Project on Student Debt estimates that the average student loan per borrower totals $25,000. Delbanco acknowledges the financial pressures facing students these days but emphasizes that students should view college as more than just a line on a resume.
"Students are afraid to take intellectual chances, they take too many courses, they double and triple major, they worry about their resume from day one," he says. "We should encourage students to make the best of this precious experience."
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- Andrew Delbanco