Is College Worth Its Salt? Hint: It’s Worth More For Men…

My friend Audrey (with whom, it should be noted, I went to college) raises an interesting question.  Is college worthwhile at all?  Particularly for families for whom it’s a huge financial stretch, often involving bigtime loans that take many years to pay off–is it really worth it?

For most of us, I think the answer would be yes.  College is not just about a nice shiny credential to paste at the top of your resume, although I have seen many students, especially during my time at SUNY Albany, for whom the goal seemed to be little more than that.  For these students, the B.A. might prove to be simply a rubber stamp, a certification of having successfully jumped some hoops, scored some goals and not messed up too badly.

That is not the kind of education that’s worth much in the way of sacrifice and effort.

The kind of college education that is worth a young person’s time, effort and financial investment is the kind that opens up new pathways which they might very well never have found any other way.  For instance, I don’t think I would have ever sat down and read all of the novels of Virginia Woolf if Jamie Hutchinson hadn’t led me with passion and enthusiasm through my first one, To the Lighthouse.  His obvious delight at Woolf’s language and the way she structured her novel inspired me to go down into the musty stacks of the library and find some more of her books, and I’ll never forget the magic I felt reading Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves and Orlando for the first time.  Her books cast a spell on me from which I never wanted to wake up.

For my son, now a senior at Simon’s Rock, it was the world of science that opened up for him in college.  He had been bored in all his classes in the 10th grade, and had no idea what he was interested in focusing on for a potential career path, other than his original dream, first expressed when he was two years old, of being “an underwater photographer.”  A college class in marine biology showed him that his dream could become a reality, and started him off on a scientific journey that led him to study eels in the Hudson River as an intern on a faculty summer project; take a junior semester in Baja California studying octopi and other marine life there; win a summer fellowship to work as a paid intern at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, working on a faculty project on eelgrass habitat; and now to do his senior thesis project on a major riverfront restoration project.  None of these doors would have been open to him, or would even have been visible to him, had he not been enrolled in college.

And of course, there’s the social side of college too.  From the social networking with like-minded peers to the ecstatic meeting of kindred souls, the late teens/early twenties are when the most sparks fly, socially speaking, and college is the best place to meet the kind of people who are likely to be focused, goal-oriented and at least relatively stable.  This is not to say that there aren’t all kinds of flakes and basket cases in college.  But even those people are there because their families care enough to make sure they have the best chances in life, and are willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to help them over the difficult shoals of early adulthood.  Having a peer group like that counts for a lot.

Much is always made of the value of a college degree in terms of increased earnings.  Interestingly, in looking at the census data, earnings still remain skewed by gender.

Even though more women are now finishing college than men, still, college-educated women earn significantly less than college-educated men:  “women earned 67 percent of what men earned overall and earned 76 percent of what men earned when working full-time, year-round. At the lowest attainment level (not a high school graduate), the difference was 63 percent overall and 75 percent within the full-time, year-round worker population. At the highest attainment level (advanced degree), the difference was 66 percent for the total worker population and 69 percent for the full-time, year-round worker population.”

Is it worth it to go to college? Yes.  But we women have got to learn to be more forceful in advocating for ourselves with our bosses!  There is no reason why in this day and age women should still be earning only 70 cents on the man’s dollar.  Could it be that our vaunted education has the subtle effect of making us reluctant to question authority and speak up for ourselves?  Why doesn’t it have the same effect on men?

Dr. Leonard Sax has proposed some interesting hypotheses in answer to these questions, namely that boys are socialized to show off and act aggressive in school, while girls are socialized to be demure and wait for recognition.  These behavior patterns can get boys into a lot of trouble in the early years of school, and may turn some off from school entirely.  But at the higher levels of schooling, being aggressive is often rewarded, just as it is in the marketplace.  Boys and men tend to exaggerate their strengths, while girls and women tend to exaggerate their own weaknesses.

These are complex socialization processes for which there is no quick fix.  We’re all only human.  But it’s important, particularly for young women, to be aware of the likelihood that we will not receive equal pay for equal work unless we step up and demand it.

If their college education was worth its salt, it would give young women the skills and confidence to do just that.  And it might just teach young men some humility along the way too.

How Did I Get Here?

Letting the days go by….

If there’s one thing that I can point to that landed me where I am today, it’s the fact that I chose to put my parenting ahead of my career.

Should I be feeling guilty about this?

What does it say about our society that I have to even ask myself that question?

I had my first child when I was 30 and two years away from finishing my doctorate. I wrote my dissertation while he napped as an infant.  When I finished, I half-heartedly went on the job market, but knew, even as I made the rounds of MLA interviews, that I was not willing to subject myself to the rigors of the tenure clock while also caring for a small child.

I ended up at my undergraduate alma mater, Simon’s Rock, teaching as an adjunct.  I thought it would be temporary, a way of “keeping my hand in,” and that when I was ready I would be able to get back on to the tenure track.

If I had known then what I know now–that making the leap from adjunct to tenured faculty is incredibly difficult, even if you have everything going for you–would I have chosen differently?

I don’t think so.  I wanted to work part-time so I would have time to mother my sons the way I myself had been mothered–carefully, tenderly, in a relaxed and open-hearted way.  I did not want to subject them to long hours at day care.  I didn’t want to have to commute long distances, making family dinners impossible.  I didn’t want to have to move far from their grandparents, my parents, who sustained our growing family in so many ways.

Still.  I didn’t realize how much of a stigma would be attached to a professional like me making a decision like that. I didn’t realize how even at Simon’s Rock, moving from adjunct to regular fulltime (the school has no tenure track) would be difficult, to say the least–notwithstanding my impressive publication record, teaching prowess and evident commitment to the institution.

And so I took on a second job, working two-thirds time at Simon’s Rock and half-time at SUNY.  Finally I was making a real living.

But over the nine years that I did both jobs, while also parenting, publishing, making the rounds of professional conferences and organizing my own major annual conference and now month-long festival, my marriage deteriorated.  I thought that as I made more income and had more responsibilities outside the home, my partner would step up and do more parenting.

If anything, he did less.  The more successful I appeared, the more insecure and irritable he became.  This is apparently a common pattern among husbands who are less professionally successful than their wives.

And so I got more and more burnt out.  I remember coming home one day after a full day of teaching, with a car full of groceries, and just being in tears carrying the heavy bags into the house while the boys and their dad looked on, apparently unmoved. It was too much.

Eventually my body said NO MORE and I had a major back spasm, forcing me to do less, and the boys to do more.  Not long after, my husband checked out.

I would never have chosen to give up my second job, but one month into this situation, I have to say that it feels like a blessing.  What a luxury it is to have time to properly prepare my classes, instead of being constantly on the run, playing catch up!  What a pleasure to have more time to visit with family and friends!

Apparently I’m not alone in feeling this way.  As Juliet Schor reports in this month’s YES Magazine, “people who voluntarily start working less are generally pleased. In the New Dream survey, 23 percent said they were not only happier, but they didn’t miss the money. Sixty percent reported being happier, but missed the money to varying degrees. Only 10 percent regretted the change. And I’ve also found downshifters who began with a job loss or an involuntary reduction in pay or hours, but came to prefer having a wealth of time.”

It’s been nine years since I’ve had this kind of luxury of time.  I want to use it wisely–making new networks of friends, being a kinder, less snappish mom, putting time into pleasures that cost nothing, like writing, weeding my garden, walking my dog.  Or just sitting still in the slanting afternoon sunshine, dreaming up another world.

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