The best university magazines address big questions. But they tend to address big questions that have articulated factual answers. What is the universe like if string theory turns out to be right? Why can’t the global public health apparatus eradicate malaria? How does a new set of fossil bones force a new idea about our early hominid ancestors and change our fundamental picture of how Homo sapiens evolved?
Notre Dame Magazine has marked out its turf as addressing big questions that do not have straightforward answers. And editor Kerry Temple and his staff do not shy from big, hard-to-address questions that could be troubling to the university. The cover story in the Summer 2013 issue is one more example, posing the hard question in its title: “Is College Worth It?” Alumnus and Assumption College faculty member James Lang comes at the question as a teacher who works to make college a worthwhile experience and a parent staring down massive tuition payments. He also comes at the question as a smart and skilled writer.
Lang opens the piece with an excellent bit of verbal draughtsmanship as he introduces a student of his who seemed not to need college to help secure a good job. Andrew Hadley’s family owns a prosperous fish-processing company, and after high school Hadley had a guaranteed job that he liked. I am a connoisseur of good leads and Lang wrote one:
Andrew Hadley is a fish fixer. As the heir-apparent to the Hadley Company, an international fish-processing and import-export business, he steps in when a New England casino calls on a Thursday and says it needs 600 pounds of whitefish for the weekend. He loads the truck himself, drives it down to the casino and gently reminds the buyers to place their orders a little earlier in the week next time.
This is how you start a long piece on a topic potentially so ponderous—you start with a deft 13-paragraph sketch of a smart kid who prompted one of his teachers, in this case the author, to ask not only “Why are you here?” but “Why is anybody here, especially at these prices?”
Which is really the urgent matter, isn’t it? The list of benefits that accrue from a college education have not changed in 50 years; all that changes is how each benefit is weighted for a given generation. What makes the question urgent now is the heart-stopping cost of four years at most any college or university, and the increasing volume of critics unwilling to be brushed aside by condescending academics who often seem put-upon because someone does not care to accept their “do we really have to explain the value of this again“ responses.
It is much to Lang’s, and Notre Dame‘s credit, that “Is College Worth It?” starts its attempt at an answer with the acknowledgement that it is a damned good question. Then it makes clear the answer may not be some sort of institutional sales pitch:
The worst part of the price tag of a college education today, at least according to some authors, stems from the speculation that colleges and universities are driving up prices through outdated hiring and labor practices, financial mismanagement, and arms-race spending on amenities like sushi in the dining halls and rock-climbing walls in the athletic center.
There’s a sentence guaranteed to amp a senior administrator’s blood pressure. So let’s pause here to acknowledge and praise the bosses at Notre Dame the school for allowing Notre Dame the magazine to publish pieces that contain sentences like that. Lang thoughtfully responds to that critique, mainly by citing the explanations and arguments put forth by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman in their book, Why Does College Cost So Much? You may agree with them or not, but Lang does a fine job of taking the reader through their reasoning and conclusions.
At this point in my reading of the story, though, I experienced a twinge of dismay because I felt that what had begun in such a promising fashion as a provocative piece was turning into the same old answer—”Of course it’s worth it!”—only delivered in better prose. But then Lang gives space to the eduhacking movement that has been challenging the idea that the only place to obtain a college education is at a college. He finishes well with some discussion of what makes a good college student, and what makes for a kid who perhaps does not belong in college.
Too many students, by contrast, come into college without any driving questions or interests behind them. They wander from class to class, without any sense of larger purpose, checking off boxes on their degree audits, or they see the whole experience as an expensive means to find friends, earn a degree, and get a job. …These are the kinds of students who, no matter where they choose to matriculate, are probably paying too much for college.
The same issue of the magazine includes a five-page satirical comic by Michael Molinelli about the high cost of tuition that ends with Notre Dame announcing that henceforth tuition will be free but football tickets will cost $5,000 a piece. There’s also a strong, engaging profile by associate editor Tara Hunt of an alumnus chef. Makes for a pretty good issue, don’t you think?
(Oh, there’s also some funky business with parts of the magazine that play video on your smart phone if you point the phone at the right spot on the page and engage a certain app. The instructions involve six steps. I don’t know how well it works because I’m a grumpy old analogue guy with a dumbphone, plus if you’re a regular reader of UMagazinology you know my lack of regard for enticing readers to leave your magazine for a digital device. But one of you dear readers can give it a spin and report the results in the comments section.)