How much for that college in the downturn?

by Beacon Staff • December 3, 2008

bAt issue:/b Attending a private university during these tough economic times.

bOur view/b: We should appreciate the privilege of attending an economically exclusive school.

After the holiday when giving thanks is capitalized, college students typically shift gears to the bellyaching and commiserating that precedes finals week. But as some seniors are willing themselves through a series of one-last 10-pagers or study sessions before being released (that is, graduated), it's worth the while to take stock of the privileges we all enjoy.

Granted, a bit of sardonic sarcasm is a mechanism necessary to coping with four years at "Camp Emerson," or any other college. Show us a university, and we'll show you students who can find something to complain about. But two recent iBoston Globe/i stories ought to remind us that we are, in fact, the lucky ones.

On Dec. 2, the newspaper detailed the plight of high-achieving, well-to-do students suddenly unable to pay for private colleges like Smith College in Northampton, Mass. and Northeastern University, thanks to the frailing economy. No doubt there are plenty of applicants who will receive prohibitively stingy financial aid packages from Emerson College and find themselves enrolling instead at (gasp!) University of Massachusetts-Amherst instead.

The next day, further inside the paper, appeared a story about those for whom the choice is not between Ithaca College in New York and UMass, but between affording community college and foregoing higher education. Massachusetts' public colleges are the second most expensive, in terms of the portion of income eaten by tuition, in the nation, according to a National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education report cited in the article. Moreover, more and more community college students are leaving school before completing their degrees.

The conclusion begged by both stories is that higher education, especially at a private institution, is not a right, nor even an entitlement. It's a profound privilege. In a way, the conversation about high school graduates is itself a conversation about the lucky ones; fewer and fewer high school students, especially in cities like Boston, ever get their first diploma.

This is not a guilt trip. Guilt is not likely what seniors are feeling as they survey the desolate job market they will soon navigate. Neither will the underclassmen being forced to reconsider whether they can afford the rest of their Emerson education have any sympathy to spare. Everyone suffers in a recession.

We should, however, feel gratitude for the good fortune required, in so many ways, to enjoy higher education at a private college, recession or not. And, since we all dodged total economic freefall before getting in, we should send another missive of thanks to whichever scholarship, rich relative or higher power (like a job) is footing the bill.