Money and the Idea of a University

How people finance their education will often affect how they envision it.

Years ago, college tuition was still low enough for young adults to make enough money to put themselves through college.  If you had saved money working during high school and worked summers and over Christmas break, with a relatively modest scholarship and a work-study grant for which you put in twenty hours of work a week, you could pretty much put yourself through school.

Now, however, it is largely impossible to work one’s way through college.  You simply cannot make enough money as a young adult to make much of a dent in a tuition bill that may be as high as $70,000 per year.  You likely couldn’t pay that much even if you had a regular full-time, salaried job, since $70,000 per year is the median annual salary (before taxes) of all workers in America.

What values would be instilled in students that might be essential to America’s future if they were expected to finance their own education and if the price of college were gauged by what a student could conceivably earn working over the summer and during winter vacations?

The way colleges are financed now and the kind of education students receive encourages them not to think too seriously about the long-term effects.  The message is “spend now and finance by borrowing.”  This practice often encourages a lifelong bad habit.  Not work, save, and pay, but finance on credit in order to enjoy a certain lifestyle now. The government will bail us out. They bail everyone else out, right?  College debt, as we’re starting to hear from the politicos, may be next.

So how is the current college student encouraged to imagine the university? For many, perhaps most, it is not a place of learning, a place to develop important skills and abilities, it is simply a rite of passage.  Somehow you get through it so that you can get on with life.  You’re not in college for the education, but simply the credential, the degree, which everyone knows does not really mean that you can read and analyze texts proficiently, write literate prose, or formulate a cogent argument.  It means little more than that you figured out how to get someone to pay your college bills for four years.

What if students were taught that high-priced credentials are meaningless and that the only thing one can really depend on in the long run are hard-won, hard-core skills? When everyone is getting the same college “credential,” whether they have learned anything or not, even if they plagiarized their way through their classes, then that “credential” becomes more and more meaningless, even as the costs get higher and higher.

As college expenses have risen even faster than medical expenses and more than six times greater than the increases in the cost-of-living, the ethos of the pay-as-you-go, earn-your-way education has been replaced by market calculations and risk.  If I incur this much debt, will I see an adequate return on that investment?


In this environment, more people prefer to go with “safer” investments, blue-chip stocks like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, or Yale. The price is high, but the dividends are reliable.  A place like Columbia is riskier.  It used to have great professors like Mark Van Doren. But now, who knows? Great teacher-scholars are often known only to their students and perhaps a few other scholars, not the general public, which is why expensive new buildings, “prestige-mongering,” and high-priced communications experts to get the institutional “branding” right have become much more important than what goes on in the classroom.

It also seems to make financial sense to choose a “less risky” major  – something that will make enough money after school to be able to pay those student loan bills and still live comfortably.  Oddly – and contrary to the long-term interests of the students – the result has been a decrease in demand for courses that build hard skills, like research, writing, logic, and mathematics, and an increase in courses deemed “relevant” but that often result only in indoctrinating students with academic fads.  Hence more courses in Gender Studies and Communication. and fewer in Literature, History, and Philosophy.

An interesting fact of modern academic life is that the faculty who are most likely to support the liberal arts are the faculty members whose devotion to the Catholic intellectual tradition is strongest.  Often, “Catholic character” and the “liberal arts” go hand-in-hand, like two old lovers who just don’t feel complete without each other.

Perhaps this is because, as I wrote in an earlier article on this page,

When Christ, the Word made flesh, is properly understood as the center of the university’s mission, then all truth, no matter its source, is welcome and important. It is when that Christian conviction about the symphonic nature of truth is replaced with a “system” or “process” or “ideology” that the entire edifice begins to crumble from within.

. . . When Christ is at the university’s center, all creation is important, the handiwork of a loving God. When Christ is at its center, nothing genuinely human can fail to raise an echo in the hearts of its members. When it loses Christ at its core, it soon becomes the servant of Mammon, ideology, or the State.

Unfortunately, Catholic institutions follow the lead of their peers just as often as Catholics follow the moral dispositions of the rest of the country.  This should be no surprise. Sellers offer what buyers want.

Colleges can provide a first-rate education at a reasonable cost. They just don’t have sufficient motivation to do so currently.  Quite the opposite. More money, larger endowments, higher-paid administrators, and winning sports teams must mean a better university and a better education, don’t they? Sure. And bishops who hand out big cash gifts to fellow bishops must be the best candidates for higher positions of authority in the Church too.


*Image: The Spirit of the Land Grant College (mural extract: President Lincoln signs the Morrill Act of 1862) by Eugene Francis Savage, 1961 [The Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education Library, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN]. Below is the mural in toto:

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.