Almost every week there is a fresh lament about the rising cost of college tuition or how liberal arts graduates can’t find adequate employment. Rather than add my own addition to the genre I thought I’d try a different approach and solve both problems (at least partially).
But first, my inspiration. Andy Whitman’s article for Image, “Starbucks and the Liberal Arts Major”, may not cover new ground, but it is entertaining:
There was a time, as recently as the mid-1970s, when I was earning liberal arts degree number one in creative writing, when the conventional wisdom held that the mere possession of a college degree opened up shining vistas of middle-class respectability and privilege. You might not get rich, but you could buy a tract home in the suburbs and vacation at Myrtle Beach.
Now a college degree—at least a liberal arts college degree—will get you a barista job at Starbucks.
The cost of education has risen astronomically, and the value of that education, at least in terms of potential earning power, is more suspect and dubious than ever.
Question: how many lattes do you have to serve to pay off a $100,000 student loan? Answer: It’s a trick question. You’ll never pay off a $100,000 student loan making $7.00 per hour. A collection agency will repossess your iPhone, MacBook, guitar and Toyota Prius. It would repossess your tattoos if it could. You will end up living in your parents’ basement. I assure you that this is a prospect that frightens children and parents alike.
Nevertheless, his two daughters are both in school and “piling up enormous debt” to get a degree (or two) in the liberal arts—and with his blessing:
I’ll encourage them to be themselves, to learn as much as they can, and to let the chips (which most assuredly cannot be cashed in) fall where they may. What else can they do? These are kids who show a natural affinity for forties fashions and Bulgarian folk music, God help them. The nerd/freak apple lies close to the parental tree. They would view a spreadsheet as a potentially colorful mosaic pattern just waiting to be filled in.
Whitman raises an interesting point. How can parents encourage their children to pursue their passion without burying them in debt?
I have a solution: a homeschooling co-op for college-age liberal arts students.
Here’s how it would work: Instead of taking a part-time job making coffee, newly minted liberal arts M.A./PhD’s would be hired as tutors making the same pay they’d get at their local Starbucks. For example, a lead barista in Washington, D.C. makes on average $8.86 an hour. So a tutor in the D.C. area would charge $8.86 per hour for their services.
Rather than paying tuition at a four-year college (average: $26,273 per year), students interested in getting a liberal arts education would simply pay tutors to teach them what they want to learn. For instance, if a student in the D.C. area wants to take the equivalent of 10 college classes a year (30 credit hours), they would pay the tutors the Starbucks rate ($8.86 per hour) for the equivalent classroom time (480 hours). The out-of-pocket “tuition” for this student would be $4,253—an average savings of $22,020 a year.
The single biggest drawback is that at the end of four years of tutoring the student won’t have a college degree in the liberal arts. But so what? Why do they need the diploma? If the purpose of getting a liberal arts education—as everyone claims—is to teach you how to think critically, then why do you need a diploma? Is it needed to get one of the non-existent jobs that a liberal arts degree will help you land?
If the piece of paper is necessary then the student can supplement their education by getting a degree in a vocational trade or practical subject like business, accounting, or medical assisting. It may take them a bit longer to pursue both tutoring and vo-tech classes, but they were probably going to spend 6-8 years in college and graduate school anyway.
Still, there seems to be something missing, doesn’t there? If a liberal arts degree were really about getting a liberal arts education than this proposal would seem commonsensical. So why doesn’t is seem more appealing?
I believe the reason is that many Americans (at least those of us who would get a liberal arts degree) want to be able to pursue our own peculiar interest, get a piece of paper that testifies to our accomplishments, and to have the job market reward us for our choice. It seems almost unfair that the only work our B.A. in Medieval philosophy qualifies us for involves grinding Arabica beans. Indeed, a liberal arts education seems to be useless in helping us answer one of life’s most important questions: Why can’t we have everything we want in just the way we want it?