After great fanfare, and much handwringing from an anxious higher education community, the Obama administration finally launched its ballyhooed College Scorecard. It disappoints, but not, perhaps, for the reasons that many think.
For years, the Obama administration has berated colleges for charging too much, failing too many students, and granting degrees that don’t lead to high-paying jobs. The administration, at one point, was planning to launch a rating system that would designate schools as high-, middle-, or low-performing. This rating would then be used to determine how much federal aid schools would get, for example, in the form of Pell grants.
Congressional Republicans and college presidents balked, and the Department of Education was unable to build a system for the current academic year that would, in effect, perform an annual financial audit on every institution of higher education in the country. But the administration has not retreated from its principles, and there are DC think tanks that will continue to fight for them.
What happens when you use the College Scorecard? When I plug in the university where I teach, Fordham, I learn that the school has annual average cost of $33,446, a graduation rate of 81%, and an average salary after attending of $55,400. The percentage of students receiving federal loans is 55%, the typical total debt is $25,000, and the typical monthly loan payment is $278. One can also investigate the types of financial aid, calculate one’s aid, and determine the GI Bill Benefits.
To be fair, the College Scorecard also states that Fordham is 4-Year, Private, City, Medium, and Roman Catholic. But the undeniable message of the site is that college is first and foremost a financial investment. Education itself hardly enters into the equation.
So what’s the disappointment? Here, I turn to the political philosopher Leo Strauss, one of the great twentieth-century defenders of the liberal arts in the face of calls for vocational education.
In his essay “What is Liberal Education?” (1961), Strauss says, “Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.”
According to Strauss, students should seek out the most profound thinkers of Western civilization—and also, if we can, “the greatest minds of India and of China”—to talk about the nature of the universe, politics, and humanity. Given that the greatest thinkers are often dead or distant, the next best substitute is an education steeped in their books. For much of human history, this kind of education was reserved for gentlemen coming from wealthy and esteemed families, but in a democratic age we can now offer this kind of education to many young people who express interest regardless of their financial means.
By offering a liberal arts education to many young people, civilization signals that a life of the mind is a valuable thing—and maybe even the most precious thing. Socrates, famously, was poor, and a liberal arts education based in a study of philosophy and the classics also conveys that money is a necessity but not an end in itself.
The College Scorecard, which received 1.2 million page views in its first week, signals as clear as day that money is the reason you should go to college. But more importantly, and perhaps unappreciated, is that it conveys that money plays a huge role in human life and we should hold in high esteem those who have a lot of it.
Again, we may turn to Leo Strauss for insight, but this time to his classic Natural Right and History: “The character, or tone, of a society depends on what the society regards as most respectable or most worthy of admiration,” he writes, “But by regarding certain habits or attitudes as most respectable, a society admits the superiority, the superior dignity, of those human beings who most perfectly embody the habits or attitudes in question.”