The Real University Utilon

Could I have picked a worse time to defend the utility of a university degree? Seriously, how impeccable is my typed timing? When roving bands of Judeophobic rent-a-protesters are dirtying up Ivy League quads, erecting trash-barricades and REI-tent bidonvilles, smashing private property like a bunch of fetid French communards. I’d be better off hosting a hot dog eating contest in Dearborn, Mich., during Ramadan instead of going to bat for bursaries.

We’ll just have to put this mistimed column under the “contrarian” tag, even though I’m not, truly not, trying to deliberately row against the popular tide. (I much prefer to drift along with the public pace while casting observances, tall boy in hand, anyway.)

It just so happens to be an apt moment to evaluate our bloated “higher education” industry—the commercial appellation being deliberate, not a misnomer. For one, it’s graduation season, with mortar boards making their brief flight heavenward as “Pomp and Circumstance” marches to the top of the iTunes chart. And for two, twice the topic of college ed’s efficacy popped up in recent conversation. So some reflection, undue it may be amid Hamasnik glamping, is due.

An unemployed acquaintance of mine recounted to me over Easter about a frustrating, and futile, job interview. Though in his late ‘30s, he was applying for some-such lobbying gig that, unbeknownst to appliers, was really a junior role. The firm’s CEO informed my friend that he should have included his GPA on his curriculum vitae, which, presumably, already displayed a decade’s worth of actual working experience. Who knew employers, in 2024, still gave a toss about your college marks? And here I thought I was a preening imbecile including “summa cum laude” on my meager résumé upon my own graduation.

During a more recent work lunch, my colleagues, many of whom have high-school-age kids, commiserated about looming tuition bills. The entire FAFSA application process is—hold on to your hat!—a glitchy, bureaucratic nightmare. Thanks, Obama, but for real. Tuition costs are eye-poppingly steep, necessitating a debt-load pickaback. Everyone at my table assumed a reckoning was close at hand. “The higher ed bubble is going to pop” was the consensus chatter. Lacking any shame over piercing workplace collegiality, I challenged the general assumption with three simple words: Yeah, but why? Why should the university-industrial complex racket-cycle go through entropic collapse? The feds aren’t about to stop pumping tax dollars into it. President Biden just illegally crossed the book for thousands of borrowers. There’s no big bubble seepage on the immediate horizon, unless Uncle Sam’s credit card is suddenly denied. Should America welch on her obscene obligations, we’ll have bigger trouble than whether or not smart little Sally can afford Bernard.

The high-school-uni-job pipeline may have sprung a few leaks, but it’s not rusted through yet. Something keeps its trestle intact, despite student debt levels outpacing multiple countries’ yearly GDP. The supportive force lies in the university’s purpose, which is simpler than 50-page theses on Plato’s Symposium.

The age-old question going back to the days when trivium was taught more than Taylor Swift 101: What is college for? Wait! Please, tasteful reader, now that you’ve come this far, don’t close out your tab and click the “back” button! I promise what follows won’t be an angsty Allan Bloom-esque column, lamenting the loss of an actual place of hallowed learning that challenges a young man to strive for greater heights in elucidation and wonder. That book was written the year I was born. I’m not going to do what other columnists do and pretend to have read The Closing of the American Mind while just snipping and pasting key quotes off GoodReads.com. This also isn’t morphing into an “oh the humanities are lost!” polemic—one of those perennial pieces that pops up in major periodicals, by my count, every other week.

Here’s the perfunctory disclaimer for all right-of-center college disquisitions: Yes, the liberal arts are dying thanks to woke professors inserting racial/sexual/oppressions exegeses in everything from Shakespeare to Keats to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And yes, college was better when the medieval model reigned with stern monks lecturing novitiates sitting stone-still in front-facing uncomfortable chairs.

But just because directional universities no longer teach Thomistic theology in Latin doesn’t mean they’re devoid of usefulness. What Victor Davis Hanson calls the “campus-corporate nexus” isn’t geographically limited to the Sanford-Silicon-Valley chute. Companies use college as a general gauge of ability, determination, and dedication. Or as Musa al-Gharbi, citing Bryan Caplan, argued, “the main signal telegraphed to employers by college degrees is that these are the kind of people who are willing to endure drudgery, degradation, and busy work… who see things through to completion… who will follow the rules; who will complete tasks on time and according to specifications.”

That description sounds sterile and unromantic, but we’re talking about a mass sorting mechanism for millions of labor-force entrants per year. Finding a job isn’t indulging in a hermeneutic reading of the letters of Thomas Jefferson from a queer, dyslexic, Portuguese perspective. Universities help answer a few queries. Can a young person, when left to his or her own devices, obtain a credential in four to five years? Is he or she capable of setting a goal and pursuing it when met with countless other distractions? Can a prospective worker buckle down to finish a term paper without getting caught up in downing a 30-rack of Busch Light with a few pals on a Tuesday night or binge watching The Office?

No employment barometer is perfect, and there are plenty of shortcuts, loopholes, and verity gaps to exploit. But baseline college—the obtainment of a bachelor’s degree with a semi-decent grade average—is the consensus competence marker. Dozens of cosplaying revolutionaries playing campus intifada can trash department buildings, professor offices, science labs, student centers, pillow-plushed safe spaces, and vegan dining halls. But they’re not about to make a dent in the degree-equals-proficiency perception. Plus, the same keffiyeh-garbed students will eventually apply to Fortune 500 firms touting their “commitment to social justice.”

The value of a university education will only fall the same way the value for all things eventually falls: when the money runs out.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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