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.

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