The inevitable battle over college education in America has begun.

It was only a matter of time.  Housing and real estate led the way in 2009 – and now it’s college education.  The bubble seems ready to burst, the pins are sharneped, and what we hear could be both good and bad news. It’s good in that it will address some efficiency problems. It’s very bad in that our economics have forced us to take our eyes off of what the purpose of education is.  Many still approach a college education with the goal of simply being able to eventually earn more money.

It used to be that one could ‘invest’ in home ownership, certain to get a return on his or her investment as housing prices rose and outpaced commodities and CDs.  Banks gleefully approved people for loans to the limits of sensibility and we happily signed on the bottom line for the biggest home we could afford.  “We’ll get it all back and we’ll always earn more in the future,” we said.


Cruise through some nearby communities or in a whole state near me and house prices have flatlined, some are worth half what they were three years ago (the loans still remain for the original value though), and observe how slow the housing market is.

College tuition is next. 

The drumbeats have begun to sound regarding college education.  Parents have been beating them for years.  In fact, I’m surprised how much private angst and even anger exists among otherwise congenial parents when they ask me about how to afford college education for their teenagers.  It’s true. I can be having a nice normal conversation with a parent and then, because I’m a professor and a parent of teenagers, we’ll talk about affording college and …. poof! …..there’s a dramatic transformation.

College tuition costs have grown steadily over the past decades, far outpacing income in America.  The sticker price of college is now over 3x what it was 25 years ago, while income hasn’t even doubled in that time period. (This is just my quick illustration, not hard facts) And public universities are significantly more expensive than what once was as the ‘gap’ between public and private colleges is shrinking.

The latest, expected and warranted, point of critique focused on professors and their workload.  Well, the question was actually “do they work hard enough?”  There’s some validity in the question, but the data for it is lopsided.  Most professors at Christian colleges and schools I know actually teach twice as much as the 12-15 hours cited in the article and earn about 70% or less of the cited salary range.

Not everything said regarding college education compares ‘apples to apples.’ 

So, the pressure is on:  For students to pass tests to earn scholarships, tests that often (not always) reward short-term memory versus long-term wisdom.  For parents to work two jobs to help pay for tuition.  For students to take large loans to pay for school.

The pragmatism of paying for college has forced education to be less about, well, education and more about pragmatism – what you can earn, what ‘works’, and what gets you somewhere the fastest. In an era where we don’t need to be expert, to learn vocabulary, or to memorize because we have Google, and in a time where our greatest goal is to entertain ourselves in comfort while we talk to each other in movie quotes, we may be heading for an era where our collective wisdom declines.  We may be able to function well, but with a mechanical and consumeristic way where we lose our humanity and all of its beauty.

Control the ‘Google’ and the entertainment and you can control the masses.

When higher education becomes less about learning and more about its role in a consumeristic society, we can see our economic appetites have forced us into a dark corner.

I think college is invaluable and I think the 3-4 years spent on a university campus are the most shaping of a person’s life.  And I see this over and over each year in the lives of those who come to Bethel College (Indiana). Are there actions necessary for colleges to become more affordable? Yes.  Are there opportunities to help address concerns regarding the economic problems?  You bet. And private colleges are better poised to make these changes. As I read through these various articles, I am reminded of the Hebrew proverb:

Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.  (Proverbs 4:7)

May that be our society’s goal for our educational systems.






  • Matt Esau

    So glad you’re talking about this…looking forward to the solutions we uncover here at Bethel

  • Stephen

    Wired had an interesting article about university learning in the future last week

    Do you see things progressing this way (a la initiatives like Khan Academy), or do you think that will continue to be more of a niche learning market?

  • Brittany Weaver Hartman

    As for your workload, that’s nuts people would think that! (Especially when you guys have to go for higher degrees while teaching!)
    As for the overall cost of college, phew am i feeling that! Personally, got about 2 years of great use in the workforce, then, well, Micah happened. :) Unfortunately, my student loans don’t care that Micah happened! Overall, there’s value to a lib arts education, but there’s also a lot of unnecessary overlap w/ high school. Sometimes it seems that a high school education= a paper to get you into college, but doesn’t mean anything once you’re there. Sure you can test out of some things, but shouldn’t a typical H.S. education prepare you for the basics, math, writing,speech, history, etc. Sure, youth ministry requires ALL of those things, but the basis is there in high school. Honestly, haven’t used my basic probability and stats class, BUT have used my budget planning and similar lessons from my YM classes, because it applies to what i need to do! Not totally up on what Grace College is doing down the road, but of course they are going to have a LOT more interest now that their format is 3 year, not 4. (it’s certainly not perfect, i’m hearing from friends and family), but considering the economy, ideal or not, it’s getting attention, and rightfully so, i think!