Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Undine Spragg Theory Of Higher Education; Or, Why Teaching Matters

Whither the Republic
Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education Laurie Essig (sociology, Middlebury College) asks:  "Why Would Anyone Go To An Elite College?"  Essig is responding to a recent "Room for Debate" forum at the New York Times which asks a tellingly different question:  "Does It Matter Where You Go To College?"

Essig's answer to the question posed by the Times seems to be:  that depends.  You might or might not become rich by going to an elite college, for example, and plenty of people get rich without going to elite colleges. So since we can't depend on getting our financial investment back with lots o' interest, why do we go to elite colleges? To be better than other people, that's why.  Following Pierre Bourdieu, Essig notes that those who attend elite colleges acquire social capital, something that can't be "measured in bank accounts alone....Maybe once we have a more complex understanding of power," Essig concludes, "we can actually ask ourselves the far more important question: Is the transmission of high levels of various capital at elite institutions at its core anti-democratic? But if we naively assume that the college we attended doesn’t matter, we can never begin to understand why so many of us want to go to an elite college, despite the lack of direct correlation with future earnings."

Essig is articulating what I would call the Undine Spragg Theory of Education.  Spragg, you might recall, is the heroine of  Edith Wharton's 1913 novel The Custom of the Country.  She is very beautiful, has a boatload of money from a relative who had patented a permanent wave process, a good credit rating and a father who speculates in securities of the doubtful variety. Having found the town of Apex (a burg located somewhere in H.L. Mencken country) suddenly too small for her ambitions, Undine persuades her parents to strike out for the elite East Coast. New York is Undine's finishing school and the launching pad for her future as the queen of high society, but we find her at the beginning of the novel stuck in a boarding house with her hick parents, Abner and Leota, unable to ascend the social ladder for her lack of polish, originality and character. In other words, Undine has yet to have acquired social capital, which she must earn.  Simple tasks like writing a thank you note on the correct piece of paper stymie her, and she is prone to attacks of nerves when her poor mother does things like refer to a "parterre" as an "opera box"  in front of the help.  As Wharton explains:

Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met, and the confusion of ideals thus produced caused her much perturbation when she had to choose between two courses.

Undine Spragg was lacking, you see, in social capital, and it's something you can't just purchase or imitate.  Don't tell me or Bourdieu it wouldn't have helped her to do four years at Smith and major in English lit.

This brings me to what I find odd, in the Essig piece and in six out of the seven pieces in the Times that Essig is responding to: there is absolutely no mention of teaching (David Breneman of the University of Virginia is the only person to even mention that faculty have a role in the undergraduate experience.)  This would make them not unlike nearly everyone who writes about education nowadays.  Somehow in our conversations about college we talk about admissions, we talk about cost, we talk about knowledge as a product to be doled out in one way or another, we talk about status, but rarely do we talk about colleges that students aspire to attend because the quality of teaching is often very high.  In fact, the assumption that you can get the same quality of instruction pretty much anywhere seems to be the rule in all these articles about getting a good value for your undergraduate tuition.

So despite the fact that I am uncomfortable with how much it costs to attend Zenith, and that I think the quality of education available at Zenith could and would be available everywhere if our federal and state governments really gave a cr*p about higher education and invested in it, let me say why you or your kid might want to attend an elite college.
  • Small classes.  Because teaching is a social relationship, anywhere your kid goes where it is possible to be in small classes for at least half of the credit hours leading to the B.A. is a better college than the one where they can "guarantee" you that no class will be larger than 40 or 50.  What do I mean by small?  Fifteen or fewer.  I visited one college with Big Nephew where 80% of the classes are capped at 12.  How is this possible?  Such colleges are rich.  Really rich.  And really expensive.
  • Full time faculty who actually talk to students and have time to learn something about who they are so they can teach them better.  Highway flying adjuncts may be just as smart and just as capable as their full-time counterparts, but guess what they don't have?  Time.  Guess what else they often don't have?  Offices.  Office hours held in a local coffee bar, if they are held at all, is really not what they are being paid for, much less taking the time to advise an independent study or an honors thesis.  But full-time faculty cost money, good full time faculty cost more money, and good full-time faculty need to be teaching fewer than 75 students a term to really have time for anyone's kid. 
  • Having enough faculty to keep not just required, but intellectually important, courses in the curriculum.  Bonus points for schools that support faculty research in all fields.  Why?  Not because research is a posh activity to brag about at cocktail parties, but because faculty who are doing research are not teaching your kid what they learned in graduate school two decades ago or more.  Knowledge changes, people:  unless members of the faculty have the time, inclination  and support to keep learning throughout their careers, they are not teaching well.
  • Being in class with other smart, ambitious kids and a teacher who knows how to help them all work together.  The nice folks who invented No Child Left Behind don't get this (although Laurie Essig surely does, since she teaches at a college like mine) but students don't tilt their heads and stick a funnel in one ear at the beginning of class so the teacher can pour stuff into their heads from jars marked "history" and "literature."  A really good class is a lot like a really good orchestra:  the students come, having already done work, and under the teacher's guidance (which is greater or lesser, depending on if it is a lecture class or a seminar) everybody talks.   They ask each other questions.  They argue.  They think Big Thoughts.  They get lost sometimes, and they have to find their way back.
 Now, if you are Undine Spragg, of course, none of this makes any sense:  education is just something you buy -- like permanent waves, or writing paper, and of course you would buy it from the most fashionable emporium.  This is Laurie Essig's point. But I am a little surprised that somehow, as the economic gap between the best and the rest widens, and tuitions of all kinds become harder to pay, those who comment on higher ed have suddenly decided that the answer to the problem is for everyone to stop being such a snob and stop seeking out good schools.  Instead of figuring out how to fund higher education, how to maintain the great colleges that already exist in a way that is affordable to a wide range of people, and how to reconvert colleges that have turned into mass distribution degree emporiums into functioning schools staffed by full-time faculty,  a consensus opinion seems to be developing that knowledge can be acquired any-old-how by any student who has a little gumption. And instead of asking why faculty at elite colleges actually have the time and the energy to teach creatively and innovatively, we ask whether it wouldn't be more cost effective to run most schools on adjunct labor.

When you imagine that any education, at any school, as though it is a product that can be ordered over the internet and delivered by UPS, guess what?  You shouldn't be surprised when you get a UPS education and UPS people, whether they are rich or not rich. So let's ask the question again:  why should you go to an elite college?

Because someone might actually be able to take the time to teach you there.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

There are two completely different purposes of higher education. One is the imbuing of social capital and the establishment of social connections to prepare the children of the elite to join their ranks. The other is the vocational education of the children of the lower and middle classes to prepare them to join the professional/managerial class.

A relatively small number of elite institutions do an excellent job of the former. The bulk of higher education is supposedly oriented at the latter, but this entire mission is being gutted by the extreme (and increasing) wealth inequailty of the United States.

Oh, and btw: "FOOD FIGHT!!!"

Curly Seckler said...

the thing is, you don't have to attend an elite college to benefit from what you list here. i'm sure those reasons are rattled off during campus tours as for why parents should shell out 35k or whatever it is per year, but students can find those same benefits at most state schools, even regional universities, these days.

sure, students may have three or four big intro classes (chem, bio, world civ), but i teach a 2/2 load at a regional public university and routinely teach seminars comprised of 15 students. in terms of office hours, however, we're actually required to spend a great deal of time on campus--10 hours of office hours for students per week, to be precise. compare that to most elite schools-- what do they require? 2 hours per week? i'd say we have a hell of a lot of face time with students.

as for the teaching, we've hired recent PhDs out of those elite schools, because the jobs are so scarce for everyone these days-- all of the smaller campuses are benefiting. you will commonly find PhDs from top tier schools nowadays teaching in pretty much every sort of university one can imagine, from the most expensive all the way down. and we're researching and writing, and publishing with reputable presses. so i'm finding these arguments a little out of step with these more recent developments...

AYY said...

TR, Can't you get many of these benefits in the honors programs in public universities, like U of Texas Honors 2, for example.

LouMac said...

Ok, TR, I officially heart you. This is a(nother) great post.

My institution, Bloated Flagship State U (with Even More Bloated Athletics Budget) is at the start of another biennial budget cycle of draconian cuts. Literally no-one in any official capacity has worried AT ALL about how to encourage/maintain teaching quality. And yet the barrage of empty-rhetoric feel-good e-mails, about our "focus on excellence" and "providing opportunities", has been stunning. Particularly compared with the various committees' missions which are all about "Academic Business Plans" (I jest you not). And then there are the mandates coming down from above, all orally of course, about how we all should now be contractually obliged to "service" a minimum of 200 students a year - each. (Even- especially - in small departments, if we don't want to risk being cut entirely, a la SUNY Albany, which just got rid of French, Italian, Drama, and at least two other entire programmes.) "Servicing" students ... as if they were cars coming in for oil changes.

This means that in a good year (if I teach only 4 classes, not the required 5 – in return for, e.g., coordinating the entire freaking undergrad programme), I must have at least 50 students in each class. I work in a discipline, and a language, that makes that particularly hard. 25 students used to be considered a large class….

It's amazing that in all the conversations about how to respond to financial crisis, no-one has defended the small (well, manageable) class size as an absolutely sacred, untouchable principle. On the contrary, they are weaseling in the idea that teaching=business=cost-efficency-model; ergo, larger class sizes are actually desirable.

You’ve inspired me to take a stand. Hey, I just got tenure. It’s time to start misbehaving.

Redbookish said...

Top post. We're just about to enter the Brave New World of pay for your education here in the UK.

And it's going to be vital to remember why we already teach in all of the ways that you list -- well, at my big, rich, redbrick, anyway (although we cap seminars and options at 15, not 12). And remind our students why these things are important.

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to think you can get all those benefits at a public university, but at least at my public university our class sizes are going up, and small departments that are intellectually important but not lucrative are being cut. Too many classes are taught by adjuncts. SO AYY, it is a nice thought, and it should be the case but as TR points out, it take money, which is in short supply these days.

ABT said...

I think what we need to consider here is what counts as "elite"? Does that only refer to small private liberal arts colleges? Or are we also considering the larger Ivy Leaguers in this? What about top-tier public institutions? The point is, "elite" is subjective.

Some schools that folks might consider to be elite have people teaching 100-person lectures on a 1-1 load just so they can give out a multiple choice exam and get back to publishing. "Elite" institutions don't necessarily give students better education from better teachers - some of these institutions push publishing in a way that makes it impossible to attend to teaching excellence.

At a small private liberal arts college (such as the ones that you and Essig are at), teaching DOES matter and those four things you bullet at the end of the post here should end up to be true. However, these four things can also be found at other institutions that people may not think are "elite".

"Smart, ambitious kids" do not just end up at elite schools. Not all incredibly smart and driven students can afford to attend these elite institutions - and not all who CAN afford and attend the elite schools are smart or ambitious (what these two things mean is also up for debate - just because students did well enough in high school to get into an "elite" college doesn't mean they are actually any smarter than the students attending the public university down the road).

I love reading your blog, TR... but this post seems a bit overgeneralized to me. I'm still not sure what counts as "elite" and honestly, these things you attribute only to "elite" schools I see also at schools that are regional public universities, for example.

Historiann said...

I'm torn here, because while I attended a SLAC myself and believe strongly in the benefits, I now teach at a land grant public uni. I have colleagues whose research and publishing records far surpass most of the proffies who taught at my SLAC 20-25 years ago, mostly because of the ongoing academic job crisis of 40+ years that Curly Seckler mentions. (Austerity in the tenure-track job market has dramatically increased the quality of faculty that all unis offer.) And, I like to think that I offer my students classes that are more stimulating and more challenging than the ones I took back in the day.

But, my department has 600+ majors, offers a range of courses that are required to satisfy a university-wide curriculum requirement, and we have only about 20 regular faculty. Tenured Radical's point about the scale of education is very important, and the time and attention faculty can pay to indidividual students at a SLAC is completely different than in a department like mine.

Sure, there are the extradordinary students whose combination of maturity, intellectual sophistication, and smarts get faculty attention. But, I have to wonder: how many of my students who are doing perfectly OK but maybe not great might have been coaxed to really shine if I could teach survey classes capped at 40, lecture classes capped at 25, and more than one seminar per major capped at 15?

Students in my department can get excellent history educations, and some of our recent grads (both B.A. and M.A.) get into great Ph.D. programs and even win top fellowships. But, they have to work a lot harder than students at Zenith to get that kind of faculty time and attention, and how many 18- or 19-year olds have that kind of energy or stick-tuitiveness? How many kids stumbling in here from the Colorado plains have that kind of direction?

I used to be a kid like that, and I have to wonder what my path would have been had I stayed in-state to attend a large public uni instead of my SLAC.

CowanEssigGirls said...

Dear TR

I am such a big fan of your work and was really excited to see a response to something I wrote.

So you're absolutely right that teaching matters- the only reason I left a big land grant university and landed at a place like Midd is because teaching here is the best job ever.

BUT that's not why we get more applicants per available spot than a private party in Paris Hilton's hotel room. It's because the insecure haute bourgeoisie wishes to transmit capital to their progeny. If only they gave a crap about whether or not the likes of us instill critical thinking in the next generation... then radical democracy really could flourish here.

Well, that's how I see it anyway.

Thanks for reading me- I'll continue to read you.

JoVE said...

The term "elite" may be getting in the way for some people here. As I read it, the brilliant point of this post is that things like class size matter. Things like the working conditions of the people teaching the classes matter (not just their qualifications). That, while the social capital piece is relevant, it isn't the only thing one gets from university. And that education is not about filling a bucket (or pouring information into someone's head).

These things are important to students when they are choosing where to go for their education, and how much they might be willing to pay.

But they are also important for the overall debate about higher education. They are important when university and college budget decisions are being debated. They are important when state funding of higher education is being debated. They are important when government policy about higher education is being debated.

And all of us, as citizens of whatever country we live in, and as "stakeholders" in particular colleges and universities, have opportunities to raise these arguments and attempt to have some influence on how those decisions are made.

If you don't think this kind of education should only be available to the "elite" who can afford it, you have even more stake in making these arguments wherever you are.

William said...

Thanks so much for this Claire. (I don't know if you remember me from undergraduate days, but well, hello again, anyhow.)

Farwest said...

This is my first comment. I discovered this site as a new Zenith parent, and teach at a directional state school. Our child was reluctant to go to a SLAC at first, but fortunately eventually choose a couple after his own research. At our state's large scale state schools, it can be hard to graduate in 4 years because you cannot even get into some first year classes as a freshman-the classes are already filled by upperclass students. In a major area of interest, the 2nd year classes typically have about 200-300 students in some cases.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting post. The problem, as I see it, is that in the name of improving teaching all the administrative vectors are now pointing the opposite way.

What is the problem with higher ed, the pundits ask? Tenure. too much research. Sabbaticals. Lazy professors who do not teach "enough". Solutions? More adjuncts. Larger classes. Less research support. Assessment and "student learning outcomes." On-line teaching.

But all of this is sold to parents, trustees, regents, legislators--and even some gullible faculty--as reform in the name of teaching!

cmt said...

You wrote: "Highway flying adjuncts may be just as smart and just as capable as their full-time counterparts, but guess what they don't have? Time...But full-time faculty cost money, good full time faculty cost more money, and good full-time faculty need to be teaching fewer than 75 students a term to really have time for anyone's kid"

AMEN. I am a HFA in part because of the RSJM (really stinky job market) and I get to the end of the week and think "MY GOD, I'M EXHAUSTED." I feel like I've been hit by a truck. Office hours are a kind of horrific game of Whack-A-Mole where thirty upper-level students who happen to want to study a continent that our university has now deemed "important" arrive...each of them clutching reams of paper about their intended research OR with that starry-eyed gaze that says "I need about an hour of your time."

I want to be a good teacher. I want to know my students and work with them. Some of my best teaching experiences so far have been small-group project mentoring jobs. But...those are not the norm. The norm is me. In the carpool. Trying to remember what day it is, and whether or not I sent those materials for Visiting Adjunct's next post...

Cedar said...

Great post, but I agree about the confusing implication of "elite." As others have noted, the elites are not the only ones who care about teaching, and although they may have more resources, there are other places that also value teaching, and devote what little resources they have to teaching. CC teachers may have 5/5 - but I have seen quite a few that have figured out how to do that and still be pretty good teachers to their population.
This is of course also a problem with K-12, chasing "talented" teachers rather than seeking to make an environment where the most effective teaching techniques are encouraged (class size and time to prepare matter everywhere, even in kindergarten).
So here's my goal; find some way to sell teaching. It is really hard, and our students don't always seem to know (or value) the difference between good and not-so-good teaching (having provided some of both, I know). So I think many colleges, even SLAC's and elites have given up, and join the student amenities race. But if we are so convinced that good teaching matters (and I am, and most of your readers are) we've got to find a way to measure what matters. This is really really hard. But I think worthwhile. Because if we don't find a way to define and measure it, someone is going to come along, hand us a standardized test (or a stat on how much money we bring in, see Texas A&M), and tell us to use that measure.

gradstudent parent said...

Thanks for the post TR. I attended Wes and actually took one of your courses-- a large and well taught lecture. I'm now in a doctoral program at an elite university in every sense, although I've had surprisingly few stellar teachers, perhaps pointing to some of the difficulties with a term like "elite." What you write about why someone might want to attend a SLAC (or other institution with small classes and teachers with time to teach) is equally relevant for why someone might want to work at such a place. While my colleagues aim for R1 schools, I would love nothing more than to be the teacher you describe in this post. It wouldn't hurt if PhD programs presented learning to teach to be as valuable as learning to research.

Cedar said...

Hey gradstudentparent,
I was a grad student and parent in a similar situation, and I ended up being able to teach in a SLAC (where I am now). I am sure there are all sorts of resources at your elite university for this, but if you wanted a little free advice, I'd be happy to share offline, my gmail is : criener

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece, and comments!

Right now I am a grad student in one of those R1 "top tier programs." Thanks to the terrible TT job market, recent graduates from my department do find themselves taking jobs at lesser-known regional institutions. These folks are bright and great researchers, but, judging from the pissin' and moanin' I hear from many of them--including my friends--they think they are going to do their time in purgatory, half-ass their teaching, and publish themselves into more prestigious positions.

I sure do hope they develop a love of teaching, and stop seeing what they do as slumming. I hope for this not only for the sake of their future students--who wants to be taught by someone who sees every interaction with you as a negative utility?--but also their future colleagues.

I am also worried about the bad rep they may give those of us in the pipeline at "top tier programs" who sincerely want to teach well AND do a modest amount of good research...if there are any TT jobs left in a few years.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to develop a love of teaching when you have 1000 majors (plus minors, plus nonmajors in the classes) and 10 faculty. Don't even talk to me about large class sizes.

Alexandre said...

Isn't much of this contextual? Don't we need a broader approach to these issues than a ranking of institutions through simple categories?
I should probably take a few more steps back from this before I comment, but @JoVanEvery makes important points which tie-in with some of my own reactions.
Though many might disagree and it clearly is changing, higher education in Canada doesn't produce huge rifts based on institutional prestige. Of course, some universities are ranked higher than others in the general public (thanks mostly to media coverage). But there aren't huge differences between an "elite university" and the rest.
For instance, salaries and tuition fees vary relatively little by institution, within a given province. In fact, one thing which few people seem to fully realize is that entry-level salaries at a non-prestigious Canadian university rivals entry-level salaries at some of the wealthiest universities in the United States.
Much of this is to say: those advantages listed of "elite colleges" may eventually have less to do with immanent qualities of a select few institutions or with category differences between institutions than with a specific system based in privilege, perceived value, sense of entitlement, and institutional pride.
If I were to take some distance from this discussion, I would probably challenge each of these "elite benefits," one after the other. Including class size. Even the orchestra analogy (I'm an ensemble musician). But that should probably wait until I cool off even more.
For one thing, this post does bring a focus on teaching which is indeed lacking from many mainstream discussions about higher education. And from discussions among full-time faculty members at Research I institutions, in my experience (both in the United States and Canada).
I might also agree that some points might apply to a certain "elite college" in MA with which I've had rather direct experience. But it clearly clashes with my direct experience at another prestigious MA institution as well as direct experience at universities and colleges in IN, MA, NB, Qc, and TX (not to mention or indirect experience with CA, NS, NY, VT, and ON institutions).

All in due time. As she so often does, Jo helped me bring some perspective to the issue. I now need to digest this.

By the by, this is the first time I have such a negative reaction to something posted here. I usually put TR among my insightful sources about a specific section of the academic world.

Anonymous said...

At the end of the day, though, lots of money funneled into elite institutions means that Republicans have more of an excuse to argue that "the people have spoken and they don't need expensive public universities." As a student at a very well-run and selective public liberal arts college upstate New York, it was sickening to hear our legislators over and over preach the virtues of Hamilton College and Colgate and Skidmore and Vassar as excellent alternatives to our public college, but privatized and thus better.

The more high achieving students to go public schools, the more state legislators will hear that public schools matter. To me, private liberal arts colleges are only a step away from segregationist academies. They are "better" for students, of course, but they are better because of those they leave out. The segregationist academies left out people of color, and the expensive private liberal arts colleges leave out the poor, regular people who don't want to take on college student debt.

Kate Lowe said...

Coupla things. You can get the stuff you tout as the hallmark of an elite college education at a community college (there's a reason Jill Biden works there--she gets to teach). The folks who attend community colleges tend to be smart, too, but their antecedents probably don't have college degrees or the wherewithal to send them to an "elite" college. You may also want to see if you can find a cover article from the NYTimes of about 15-20 years ago, "Everybody Else's College Education." It noted that NO ONE EVER recoups their investment in an Ivy League education. In fact, if you want good teachers, go elsewhere--because state schools and small, no name liberal arts colleges HIRE those educated at elite schools. Teaching does matter. But good teachers are not all found at elite schools. Thank god. I went to Reed College and Temple University at the undergraduate level. Both had excellent teachers. My sister and my daughter both attended community colleges and Temple University. They both found excellent teachers at both places. All of us also experienced lousy teachers at all of those establishments. You get all kinds in all kinds of places. Thank god for the drop-add period.

Kate said...

I went to Middlebury and now teach at a community college in NYC. At both places there are wonderful teachers and awful teachers. And at both schools there are smart, ambitious kids, and, at least in my classes, they engage as actively in discussions at the community college as they did at Middlebury. If anything, many of my students are more ambitious than my classmates in college, as my students are going to school, raising kids, and working; they really want to be there, and they know they don't have a safety net if they fail. But it is also true that in a situation where I teach 5 classes a semester (and am expected to publish a book), I only have so much time to devote to students, both to meet with them and to respond to their work. I primarily get to know the ones who seek me out or the ones who are really in trouble. And as there is top down pressure to standardize the curriculum, in the name of assessment, there is less room for innovation in terms of the type of material covered. There are also things like having a well-funding library and reliable internet access that professors at "elite" colleges have access to, which makes teaching easier. I do believe my students are getting a good education, but I would still choose to go to a small liberal arts college.

Anonymous said...

I'm at a state school with a 3/3 load where classes are capped at 25. So I have 75 students, not including the independent studiers and the graduate committee people, just 75 official ones.

And we do research. I was glad to escape here from the SLAC I came from where the load was the same. We have less money here but the public atmosphere and the diversity of the student body make all the difference for me.

The problem I have here, that I didn't at the SLAC, was the way we staff so much with instructors and adjuncts. This means I have to teach a huge range of upper division courses in my field, because there is only one other Ph.D. in it and with an M.A. you can only teach lower division.

So a lot of my scholarly effort goes toward keeping well enough up in fields that aren't mine to be able to teach in them. This isn't really practical, and doesn't really benefit anyone except the administration which apparently wants to keep just enough PhDs around and just enough tenured people around, but not more, and wants to "flexibilize" everyone else.

The instructors and adjuncts teach 5/5, which means 125 students each. They teach a narrow range of courses, which makes preparation time low. They have offices, computers, phones, and so on. So it isn't awful, and they're good teachers, but it's a fact they don't have the kind of expertise people with PhDs do, or keep up in field the way people with research assignments do.

As budgets are slashed, we're going to get rid of more PhDs and hire more instructors and adjuncts. We have already started discontinuing programs, which is allowing us to dismiss popular tenured faculty.

Our governor, once a Rhodes scholar, suggests this will be better for our students since college will be more like a trade school / high school. That, he intimates, is more appropriate preparation to join the workforce than traditional college is.

Anonymous said...

I want to a SLAC and then taught at one before I had to flee because of the brutally low salary (am now at a public R1). And I think what SLACs do, at their best, is teach you to think critically and to write well. With those two things in hand, you can not only pass as a member of the upper-middle class, for whatever that's worth, but have some vision about and control over your life trajectory, which is priceless. The bar is so low at the CCs and state universities, and the classes so huge at my public R1, that I just don't see the critical thinking and writing skills I did at either of the SLACs I was part of.

However, I also think that NOTHING is worth going into huge student debt for, especially if you are interested in the humanities. Dragging around $60K of debt can make the rest of your life pretty unliveable. So for my own kid, I'll choose whatever burdens her with the least debt.