College tuition pays for much more than education

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Hannah Jones/Winonan

A professor once told me, calmly reclining in her desk chair and turning momentarily away from a pile of paperwork, scholarly articles and the glow of her computer screen, that she had several times considered giving up on academia and taking up goat farming.

Initially, the remark took me off guard.

This was probably because I was paying thousands of dollars just for the opportunity to sit in her office as a student and an intern. Like yachts, mansions, filet mignon and name-brand toaster pastries, a college education had counted, for me, in a long list of things that are comparatively expensive because they are comparatively valuable.

I wasn’t just buying my college education; I was investing in it. This investment, I assumed, was going to pay off. Then I began to think about it.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the fact that I’m an English major, and may not collect on my investment at all. (Unless you call working as a barista and correcting the grammar of my clientele “collecting.”) Let’s just assume that I get my degree and the future job that it promises. What, exactly, is the return on my investment?

According to Collegecalc.org, the average Minnesota resident will pay about $17,280 for his or her four-year degree here at Winona State.

That $17,280 was paying for every time I fell asleep in a lecture class because I was still exhausted from studying the night before. It was paying for every time the snow got too bad and the professor had to cancel.

It was paying for every time I was in the dorm and I needed to pee like a horse, but my roommate was taking a shower. It was paying for my stress, my sleepless nights and my hair-pulling agony over my GPA.

It was paying for every paper I had to write, every worksheet I had to fill out, and every Scantron that has ever asked me which answer was “most correct.”

Much of my $17,280, it seemed, was going toward my own discomfort and unhappiness, all so one day I could get a job in my field.

…So, I looked up goat farming.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, goat farmers do not require a college education. Responsibilities include working outdoors and maintaining the quality of farms, crops and livestock.

The median wage as of May 2010: $18,970.

If I did as my professor sometimes fancied doing and dropped the whole college degree idea, sold my expensive textbooks to the highest bidder and ran away to California with nothing but the clothes on my back and a dream, with some “short-term, on the job training,”

I could be making nearly $19,000 every year instead of spending more than $17,000 in the course of four, meanwhile pulling out my own hair and praying it would get me a job.

With all the data laid before me, it was difficult to say why everyone I knew was here instead of escaping to the nearest farm—for that matter, why I wasn’t jumping out of the closest window and vowing to spend my days learning only how to fork hay and make goat cheese.

Then again, I knew, I wasn’t going to fly the coop anytime soon.

A little more math would have told me the difference between what a goat farmer makes and what a job requiring a college degree pays.

But more than that, I realized what else that $17,280 was paying for.

It was paying for every time a professor shocked or surprised me with something I didn’t know. It was paying for every book I got the chance to read, every film I had the privilege to see and all the computer skills I gained by using the laptop included in my tuition.

It was paying for the people I met and the stories they told me. It was paying for the newspaper job and the internship and the art, music and theater I had access to every year. It was paying for every time my roommates and I watched a movie or made cookies or stayed up talking. It was paying for the professor sitting in front of me, who had the grit to tough it out in the world of academia and postpone the goat farming dream for retirement.

College comes at a cost, but it is indeed an investment—not just in a job, but in a future self. When we work hard and play hard, we get what we paid for, and much more.

That being said, I can probably do without those Scantron questions. Honestly. “Most correct?” Somebody get me a goat.

Contact Hannah at [email protected]