What Are You Getting for Your College Education Dollars?


A link showed up in my twitter-stream to a website dedicated to the belief that they got ripped off attending the university where I teach. It was more than a tad depressing to have my university called a diploma mill or that it’s accredited by the same organization that accredits dog grooming schools. I’d say that the person behind the website was one unhappy customer/client/former-student. I wish that I could say that this was a new experience but we’ve had a few students… former student go-postal on their Facebook pages. Thus, I normally wouldn’t waste energy on the disgruntled rantings of an unhappy former-student, but the added one-two-three combo of this website and the call for greater government scrutiny on for-profit universities recruiting practices plus the $100,000 challenge from a silicon valley millionaire questioning the value of college challenged me to also ask: What are you getting for your college education dollar?

To start with, what follows are my own observations as an educator (K-8 & university) and lifelong student and does not represent anyone’s official opinions about anything. Okay, that out of the way, anyone who tries to reduce a college education to post-college Benjamins is going to be sorely disappointed because a “satisfied life” cannot be reduced to Benjamins. Period. I have long held the belief that a college education in the early part of the previous century was meant for the rich and the upper-middle class, to give their young men (and women) greater experiences of the larger world that they would later apply to helping with the family empire/business. After World War II and the G.I. Bill the possibility of a college education became much more universal. And as with many things in the 1960s to 1980s, somehow the possibility became an imperative and instead of being an option for the ambitious became the destination for those trying to find themselves. The traditional university as the road to riches lost its historic moorings and started to believe its own PR.

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I began my college experiences in the mid-1970s and as the son of Latino working-class parents I was lucky enough to benefit from the belief that there weren’t enough Latinos pursuing college degrees. This gave me access to scholarships and student loans that helped me as I earned my three college degrees and worked toward my doctorate. It might not have seemed fair to some that I benefitted from the under-representation of my heritage, but my mom always said that one must take advantage of any opportunity life presents, understanding that luck might open the door but it’s going to take hard work to see things through. So I looked at my own experience as one I was lucky enough to have had, by no means something I was entitled to and not something that was meant to make me rich somehow. The latter fact didn’t always translate well for some.

One weekend when visiting the folks during my sophomore year at Loyola Marymount University my dad sat me down, put the LA Times in front of me and told me that I wasn’t to get up until I had circled all of the jobs in the Wanted section that I was qualified to do with my one-year-plus of university. He meant well, but didn’t understand when I tried to explain that it doesn’t work that way. It probably didn’t help that I was a Religious Studies major at a Catholic university and my Christianity of choice was with the other guys, Protestantism. On many levels this didn’t make any sense to my folks. If college isn’t something connected with getting a better job, then what’s the point?

Well, this isn’t meant to be a smart ass answer, but I guess it depends on where you are at life, what your educational objectives are and what options are open to you. The answer is very different for an 18-year-old with no responsibilities, no obvious skills or gifts but an unconfessed fantasy to be a rock star (not me!) versus a 30-something single mom who likes to paint versus a newly unemployed 40-something journalist from a small-town paper. And reducing the equation to just money cuts one off from countless possible options. In fact the first thing to consider is that one does have options and that the goal has to be something more meaningful than what is easy and what is going to get one the big bucks. Add to that, one has to realize that there is no one answer for any of us.

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I had one friend I was jealous of because he cruised straight through university as an accounting major, landed a solid job right out of college and married the boss’s daughter. Then out of nowhere, he quit his job and opened a mattress retail business with his wife (also an accounting graduate) running the back office while he sold mattresses to OC folks who weren’t happy with their sleeping situation. Switching from a name-brand accounting firm to running a retail establishment wasn’t anything that I could have anticipated, but in the end he was happy and seemed to be on solid ground. Conversely, I’ve known my fair share of undergrads who drifted in and out of several majors before they looked at their transcripts late in the game and selected a degree program based on what would require the fewest additional units for them to graduate. Surprise, they ended up with a degree in something completely unrelated to anything they cared about, much less loved. So, one should not be hindered by the thought that there can only be one path. Additionally, the straight line isn’t always the quickest one to one’s goal. There’s also the part where one should not expect to get out of an experience beyond what one is willing to put into it.

I sat in a classroom for one of my teacher training credential courses at an expensive private university and the instructor had set things up so that a few of us would give presentations on language acquisition issues every class session, until everyone in the course had done a presentation. Consequently very little time was spent with the professor doing any lecturing. At one point, when the professor wasn’t in the room, a student loudly complained that we were all doing the work and that the professor wasn’t doing anything. How was this worth the thousands of dollars we were spending taking this class if we’re doing all of the work, she demanded. Not that she was actually interested in any attempt at an answer, but by this time I fully understood that it wasn’t about sitting in on lectures, but what happens beyond the lectures. A good college education is a combination of passionate educators who have pulled together powerful and timely curriculum and engaged learners working together to synthesize the curriculum into their own practices and understanding, in the end adding to it as the learning is passed forward to the next generation. What is generally missed by those bitching about getting ripped off by their institution is that one generally gets what they put into the endeavor. It’s not enough to have the best in the industry as instructors using cutting edge techniques and equipment if the students are just going through the motions. There is a great burden on instructors to strive to pull out the best and inspire their students, but ultimately it is a partnership between instructors and students that will make a difference. It’s too easy for instructors AND students to blame each other for a less than satisfying experience. It’s a combined effort and if all parties have been hard at it but are finding no fruit then it’s time to move on. Period.

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It’s good that college recruiters are held accountable for what they promise, but this is true all around whether one is looking at traditional universities or at for-profit institutions. Let the buyer (student) be ware. But also one has to let go of the idea that it’s the institution’s or it’s staff’s responsibility to turn undisciplined teenagers into solid academics or award winning artists. It’s a partnership that demands from both parties. I’ve attended five private colleges and universities and one state university and there was not a perfect one in the whole bunch. But when I was there I was inspired to learn and push myself harder than anyone would have expected from me. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the only way to a better life is through a college education. But if you do have the chance to spend time learning something you care about deeply from the best in the field, grab it and make it part of your life story. At the same time don’t buy the line that the only way out is by paying big bucks to some institution that will give you a piece of paper and that will magically lead to the land of riches. The piece of paper is just a symbol of what you have accomplished and mastered while at the institution. What will get you the job is what you can do and the expertise and passion that you uniquely bring to the effort.

It’s a mistake to expect a college education to be one’s economic panacea. It’s also a mistake to discount the opportunities presented with a college education as a frivolous waste of time and money. Some learn the lessons of life despite the college curriculum and some have to retake the courses over and over again before it starts to make sense. Some wear the cap and gown but never graduate and some graduate long before their courses are complete. And some never get it.

At one point in my journey I made a lot more money working for the phone company than I did as an educator. And if it had just been about money then I wouldn’t have quit the phone company job to teach 6th graders in Hawaiian Gardens, making half the pay for twice the work. But like my university experiences, teaching pushed me and made me a better person for the effort. And my time with the phone company had made me a trouble-shooter, not hindered by the “way things are done” when it came to my classroom. So, it wasn’t the straight-line or the big bucks, but I got something from every experience. I’m proud of all of the institutions and experiences and I cannot imagine my journey without the years spent challenging and being challenged by my professors, colleagues and eventually, my own students. It’s sour-grapes and childish to blame the institution. But this isn’t to say that there aren’t those out there looking to take your educational dollars with less than honest intentions. It’s important to choose wisely, like anything else that you might spend tens of thousands of dollars on. You shouldn’t need a college education to figure that one out. Well, most shouldn’t.



  1. Crudbasher

    Bravo Joe! I agree with you. (However) The economics of the situation are tending to trump everything else at the moment. I don’t think it’s a healthy situation nor do I think it will keep going on the way it is for too much longer. Too many forces are stressing our society right now. Many things are going to be disaggregated and reshaped into new forms. College might be one of them.

    Great post!


  2. Mike Skocko

    Getting a raise in public education requires one to hang around year after year and/or collect college credits. One’s skill, passion, dedication, and/or effectiveness play no role. Right or wrong, that’s how it works.

    When deciding where to go to collect credits, my wife and I weighed cost vs value and settled on Full Sail gambling (real money!) on getting more out of the bargain than credits.

    It wasn’t perfect (what is?) but dang if it didn’t impact my classroom during the year of madness it took to navigate the program while teaching full-time. This year the kids and I are working on gamifying the curriculum and other teachers are taking notice and a few are trying their own versions of the experiment.

    Sure, I could bitch and moan about all that I considered a waste of time but I find it more productive to focus on the other side of the coin. My paycheck’s a little fatter (as am I) and the kids’ experience is more rewarding (as is mine), all because we chose a for-profit university.

    Money well spent/invested. Thanks!


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