Polly Campbell: What’s college for?

The public conversation about forgiving student debt and the difficulty of paying for a university education brings up an even more basic question: What’s college for?

For my father, it was everything. It can take my breath away to think how close he was to never going to college. Born in 1926 in Wichita, Kansas, he grew up poor. He could hardly believe how poor he was when he looked back on it. He did well in high school, and I’m sure his family would have loved for him to go to college. But he assumed that was for rich kids. I imagine him standing in old overalls in a field of his family’s truck farm wondering what he was going to do after graduation.

Polly Campbell asks "What's college for?"
Polly Campbell

Fortunately, a teacher recognized how bright he was. She suggested he take the test for a scholarship to the University of Kansas. So he got a ride to Lawrence with a schoolmate, took the test and got the scholarship. He saved money by living in a student co-op, where he learned how many times you could make tea from a tea bag before it doesn’t make tea anymore. Then he got drafted, spent his time in the Army learning Japanese, came back to Lawrence, met and married my mom. About six years after that mental picture of him standing in a field, he was getting a doctorate in economics at Harvard.

A university education raised my father up economically. It let his mad intelligence meet the world of ideas, it introduced him to the right wife and it gave him a satisfying career that furthered the world’s knowledge in some very practical ways. Whatever government money was spent on him was absolutely worth it. 

Dad lived in the pioneering student co-ops at KU, which were self-run and the only place where Black students were allowed to live on campus. That takes my breath away, too: the Black boy as poor and as smart as he was who didn’t get that one chance. The young woman whose potential was wasted.

Things went differently for me. I started college and loved it. I sat in the front in all my classes. I stayed up late with friends, drinking coffee and talking about free will and democracy, just like I’d imagined. And I’m sure I also had far more fun than my parents did. 

But I was petrified by the future. I could not imagine any possible career I could do, and I questioned whether I was wasting time and money. So I dropped out. I moved home to my old bedroom, got fired from a series of terrible restaurant jobs and got depressed. Experimentally, I went back for an English class, in which I got an A+ on a paper about Henry James’s narrative techniques. So I re-enrolled, changed my major and took my time. I got to New York, where I had some false starts on a career, then in Cincinnati freelanced and raised kids. I was 40 when I finally found the career that fit me.

For me, it was all about finding myself and feeding my mind and my imagination, becoming a smarter, more interesting person. I learned some nonspecific but transferable skills, like writing the English language. I guess you could write for a newspaper without a college degree, but I never would have thought I could. I needed college.

Society needs college to work for people like Dad and for me, and also for kids who know from their first day they want to be engineers or doctors. It’s a complicated world out there, and not everyone is going to find a path through college that leads to exactly the right job. It’s a messy process, and probably needs improvement, but we have to expose some people to all the ideas in the world and stir them around randomly in them so new ideas can be born. There is no formula to match input with an expected output. 

So many people can’t get any benefit from college, though, whether it’s a career they love or personal growth or keeping a light shining on all the truths of humankind and all the knowledge of scholars and experts of the ages. 

It costs too much. 

I was scared of what came after college, but, if I’d had to borrow $40 or $140,000, I’m not sure I would have gone. But my tuition was something like $700 a semester. 

Think of starting college wanting to be a social worker or a teacher and having to pay back the same amount as an engineer or banker. In fact, the idea that anyone has to pay anything to get a teaching degree or to become a nurse is mind-boggling to me. 

When it comes to keeping the experience of college available and affordable, however we do that, it has to be for all kinds of students doing all kinds of things. 

There should be scholarships for semiotics majors just like there are for basketball players. So long as there are fraternity parties, I’m glad there’s a women’s studies department. Learning Mandarin can come in handy.

There just can’t be a big flashing dollar sign at the end of every education path. Let people try. Some will win and make society better. The ones who meet modest success should not be punished by decades-long debt.

Polly Campbell covered restaurants and food for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1996 until 2020. She lives in Pleasant Ridge with her husband, and since retiring does a lot of reading, cooking and gardening, if that’s what you call pulling weeds. She writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.

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