Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


Editor’s Pick
SEPTEMBER 8, 2011 4:10PM

Sometimes You Have to Teach Yourself

Rate: 10 Flag

Magazine titles are designed to push buttons. In “Is College Over?,” writer Janelle Nanos addresses many troubling issues at universities today: skyrocketing tuition costs, the burden of increasing student debt, and whether college teachers are adequately qualified to teach.

Yet at best, this cover story in Boston magazine’s September 2011 “Education Issue” is misleading. At worst, the assumption that what students get out of college is akin to a consumer choice—a personal transformation that can be purchased—reflects what’s really wrong in the halls of academe.

As Nanos tells it, when she first got her acceptance letter to Boston College, she was a believer in the “magic” of higher education:

“College was the golden ticket, the payout for slogging through high school’s tedium and testing. I didn’t have much say in where I went to high school—I was a public school kid with public school teachers for parents—but the college decision was mine, and it would catapult me into a future that I could define.”
Now, “more than a decade” out, Nanos returns to her alma mater, dogged by what she calls a “basic question: Was it worth it?

That’s a lot of handwringing from somebody who's a senior editor at Boston magazine. Her opening paragraphs include hyperventilating phrases like “barrage of studies,” “college as the next bubble,” “most explosively,” and “a match flung onto a pile of gasoline-soaked diplomas.” (This last image is invoked to describe the impact of the 2011 book  Academically Adrift.)

Of course, there really is a conflict between democratic ideals and the current price tag for college. (Nanos says she’s still paying off her student debt.) This May, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges,” based on a survey of college presidents the Boston article also cites. These days, few parents can avoid thinking about whether sending a kid to college will later force them to scramble for Medicaid.

On the other hand, Nanos handles key indicators as if they’re only caveats. For example, MIT economist Michael Greenstone tells her, “People with more education make more money, whether they’re white- or blue-collar…. The data are screaming out that the returns on getting a college degree are very high.”

To which she replies: “Okay, fair enough. College graduates earn more than those without a degree. But does that necessarily mean they got the education they paid for?”

Well, maybe yes and maybe no. People across the socioeconomic spectrum attend college at various ages for a whole slew of reasons. However, it’s safe to say that for many students, earning more money is the point.

In criticizing the lack of quantifiable outcomes, Nanos names the Collegiate Learning Assessment (or the CLA) that some universities now use, framing the bad old days like so:
“Did you take a test measuring your critical-thinking skills, your analytical abilities, or your writing proficiency before you were handed a diploma? If you graduated more than a decade ago, you probably didn’t, because such a test didn’t exist.”

Except that I did take a far more extensive “test” in the late-1970s at Reed College: I had to write a senior thesis, based on a year-long research project, before I graduated. While this was and is an unusual requirement for undergrads, many other small liberal arts colleges also provide a different college experience than the one Nanos conjures.

It's unexamined notions about who’s responsible for learning that trouble me, and in this, Nanos is mirroring the zeitgeist. Like many politicians and education bureaucrats, she talks about learning as if it's a passive activity—as something that essentially happens to students. In this formulation, they are customers, waiting for the prof to impress them, to tell them exactly what they need to know, to woo them, to dump a precious worm down their gullets.

We rarely hear about student customers as active participants. I teach in a journalism program, and I’ll testify that if a student doesn’t have a will, there really is no way. I can’t teach writing through a Vulcan mind meld. Teaching and learning are a two-way exchange.

This article and others by more recent grads really seem to be about personal disappointment. Nanos talks about the “myth” of what happens in college, arguing that the wider public believes in—and pays for—something that isn’t real. But she’s confusing this supposed myth with the dreams all teenagers have: for a new life, for new adventures, for new selves.

Disappointed college students are not a fresh trend. Even though tuition rates at the time now seem laughably low, my going to Reed in the '70s was a financial burden: I attended on a scholarship, and I had to work part-time. I had a horrible sophomore year, in which I tried to switch majors—from Psychology to English—and felt like I’d shoot myself if I heard another reference to Derrida. My best friend left for U.C. Berkeley my junior year.

Still, I figured it out. I ended up back in the psych department, taking classes that sparked me. I got to choose my own thesis topic. That friend is still my friend. And I never assumed anyone else was in charge of how much I learned.

Nanos ends her sad tale by telling the current vice president of student affairs at Boston College that the school let her down:

“I felt like I’d read a lot of really great books and that my writing had gotten stronger, but I didn’t feel like I had certifiable proof of what I’d learned.”
She even gets the guy to nod and agree with her: “You didn’t know what you didn’t know…. [I]f you’re going to spend four years in a place, you want to make sure that you’re covered.”

While I wish I knew in college what I know now—or, okay, what I don't know now—I've never believed my future was a single destination. Realizing that there is no proof, no certainty, no adequate coverage for all that life becomes may be the true beginning of adulthood.

In fact, learning to accept disappointment can be as clarifying as falling in love or a moment of being. That's what it means to grow up.



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Hi, Martha. Thanks for the essay. I have opened a new account for a new comic I'm doing--good to see your work again.
P.S., I hate college :-)
Yes, you are spot on. A college education does not come with a measureable outcome attached to your diploma. You should finish high school believing you know everything and finish college realizing you know nothing. Coming to an honest assessment of what you do not know but having the resources to find it out is the mark of a good education. An educated mind can solve problems-- it is not necessarily filled with facts.
I really appreciate this article, being the mother of a college senior who will face the "real world" next year. I do have to laugh at the Boston Magazine editor who is questioning the value of her education seated where she is, employed by a fine employer. Today I interviewed the president of a local career college for an area business magazine and one of the more interesting things he told me was that their ACCREDITATION depends on their one-year placement rate in field of study. That's where the rubber meets the road. It made me think about my son's 200 BA degree. I'm certain his private university doesn't have that caveat in their accrediting body.

I come from a family of scientists and engineers and not much is prized about the old liberal arts degree; but I'm with you in that I believe you have to be prepared to be a critical thinker. Skills change over time. What doesn't change is the ability to think and problem solve.
Given the errors of grammar and style in this quote alone, I have to wonder not only whether her alma mater or her passivity is responsible but also how she got a job as editor:
“I felt like I’d read a lot of really great books and that my writing had gotten stronger, but I didn’t feel like I had certifiable proof of what I’d learned.”
You're right about style problems, Hawley, but I did lift the quote out of a longer paragraph in which it does make more grammatical sense.

But the passivity in the point of view—I was really floored by it when I first read the article. She talks a lot about the value of critical thinking but doesn't seem to think critically—or with enough emotional distance—about her own experience.
The quote Hawley cites above really puzzles me. What kind of "certifiable proof" does Nanos want? I know, she tells us that she wants "a test measuring [her] critical-thinking skills, analytical abilities, writing proficiency..." And in fact, my students write an Exit Exam that supposedly does that, but really all it confirms is a very basic level of literacy. If Nanos received grades in individual courses, does that not give her some indication of where she stood? I agree that some sort of honours thesis is ideal, but surely she could have chosen a school with such a system if that was what she was after.
A college education is a lifetime asset.

Why do people complain that it is paid for over one's entire career?

This is just one tired idiocy that Ms. Nanos repeats in the article summarized here.

"Certifiable proof"?

So pleased this is on the cover, Martha. Jon r.
a much-deserved cover selection...though i don't always see a direct connection between my college years and what i've accomplished, i gained so much intangible wealth, it was absolutely worth it...rated
you remain a consistently great read.
sometimes.. self perserverance and work dedication cannot be justified by a diploma.
Excellent post! I went to the Univ. of Michican for my first three semesters of college and then transferred to G.W. Univ in D.C. because I couldn't stand the extreme cold and grey weather in Michigan. Many people expressed surprise at my choice, saying that I was transferring to a "lesser" college.

I was an English major and found the English dept. at G.W. to be outstanding. I was far more stimulated intellectually at G.W. because I was more invested in my education there and happier with my surroundings. At Michigan, I watched fellow students cheat their way through classes, which were often lectures with hundreds of students, and earn good grades so that they would graduate with honors.

College is what you make of it, no matter where you go. To blame the professors for an individual's college experience seems ridiculous to me. There are many successful, intelligent people who never went to college, just as there are people with multiple degrees who are not successful. Most colleges have so much to offer, but students have to be active participants and not expect to be spoon fed.
All interesting. As a newspaper editor, I interviewed college grads with journalism degrees for reporting positions who couldn't string together a sentence to save their soul. Some of the best people I hired were those with degrees in subject areas other than journalism, or who had the qualities of a good reporter/writer that can't be taught in any college or university setting: curiosity, empathy, appreciation of detail and nuance, sense of fairness, enthusiasm, persistence, creativity, dedication, pride, and a good work ethic.

And, hey, Karin Greenberg, quit harshing my Michigan. ;>)
Us hardy souls who call this beautiful state home find that the winters are a small price to pay for the country's most spectacular springs, summers and falls.
"Realizing that there is no proof, no certainty, no adequate coverage for all that life becomes may be the true beginning of adulthood."

That's all well and good, but shouldn't that be a lesson that teenagers are taught before being told to mortgage their futures for a college degree?

I agree that it's ridiculous for Nanos to be lamenting her own experience while looking back from her position with a major magazine, but all I take away from this is that she's asking the wrong particular questions.

Perhaps she would do better not to grant that college graduates make more money on average than high school graduates, but rather to ask why that is. Is it because being better educated actually compels the world to give you better employment and better pay. If so, what about all those inactive learners you talk about? Do the students who take their education seriously go on to better lives than those who coast through and cheat but still come out with a degree? Isn't it just possible that the socio-economic circumstances that make a child more likely to have access to decent employment and career-building opportunities when he grows up also make him more likely to go to college?

"Nanos talks about the “myth” of what happens in college, arguing that the wider public believes in—and pays for—something that isn’t real. But she’s confusing this supposed myth with the dreams all teenagers have: for a new life, for new adventures, for new selves."

Not having read the original article, I don't know whether that's true, but speaking for myself, I would say that I have a concept of the myth of college that is quite separate from the hope of a new life, new adventures, and new selves. I wasn't particularly focused on any of that when I went to university. I was primarily interested in my education, but I recognized that I could have been well educated through auto-didactic studies. I justified the cost, and I took college to be a necessary step because absolutely every adult I had encountered up to that point had told me that if I went to college, I would have a relatively easy time finding work, and I would have the opportunity for a fulfilling, meaningful career. In fact, I was told if I did not go to college, that would be quite impossible.

Yes, I am personally disappointed. But this goes far beyond mere disappointment. I'm downright angry. It's not because I didn't get what I wanted. I can deal with that. But there's a reasonable return that should be expected for an investment that one makes on the basis of such overwhelming pressure. I'm angry that I graduated with honors from N.Y.U. after developing a rapport with many of my professors and completing my course work in three years, and then proceeded to spend three years without full-time employment, many of the lowly positions that I applied for turning me down not in spite of my education, but because of it. I'm angry that every assessment of the economic value of college focuses only on the outcomes for people who establish careers. For God's sake, the reports that evaluate the median income of college graduates actually include only full-time, full-year workers in the calculation.

I'm also angered by the thought that many of the dimwitted children from rich families who attended college at my side may have gone on to lucrative, fulfilling careers. I agree with the sentiment that the educational value of college depends mostly on what you put into it. But I think another question that's worth asking is whether flooding the system with skeins of young people who have no personal interest in their education harms the system more than it benefits them. It's been a long time since the seventies, and I worry that since then we're being asked to pay a higher price for a damaged product.
"Disappointed college students are not a fresh trend." How true.

The problem is in part, how does one measure knowledge? How do you measure learning? Are the traditional academic disciplines even relevant anymore? Should there be standards in higher ed? Should people of different capacity have different baseline and goal measures? Is it skills, content, or ability? What can be learned, and what can't? What is the purpose of any human endeavor—education, government, health care, religion—what needs and expectations are being met, and what aren't?

I'm glad it's being discussed. I hope the politicians don't dictate the answers.
Thanks, all, for the thought-provoking comments (Jeff and Mark, I'm glad to be back on OS and hope to posting more often now).

Edward: If this article had been written from your perspective and your analysis, it would have been a powerful thing. I do think there are very good economic and political reasons to question the value of college.

If only Nanos had discussed this as essentially an upwardly mobile tracking device--that if you already have money, you're likely to get the good jobs out of college, regardless of what you "learned." It is a class issue, and a disturbing one, in a society with demographic ideals. A number of college administrators have talked about the problem of diversity (or lack of diversity) on elite campuses like Princeton. Some are attempting to address it with new variations on financial aid. Yet there's nary a word about this in the article.

While Nanos talks about the "public" being taken in by the myth, she never talks about it as a class issue. Far too much of the story is told through her own lens, which ends up conflating a big social issue with a matter of personal choice. If she had owned her personal disappointment, I would have been in her corner. Instead, she uses it as "proof" of a larger phenomenon.
My college experience was essential to the person I have become, which means that it was a mixed blessing, as I am.

However, in sheer dollars and cents, college isn't what it is cracked up to be.

The oft-proclaimed shibboleth that a college education adds a million dollars to you lifetime earnings is true only up to a point. Recent studies (which I have read about here) have shown that the real number is around $350,000, which includes an important adjustment for inflation. When you divide that number over a working life of 45 years, you are only earning $7,800 more per year with a college education over your lifetime. If you retire after 30 years on the job, then your advantage increases to $11,700...but those figures are only valid if you stay in the field for which you originally trained.

Those numbers, however, don't include the amortization of the cost of your college education. On average, today, college students are graduating with debt loads of $50,000 for a bachelor's degree and up to $100,000 for a master's degree. Amortizing that $100,000 over a twenty year payment schedule results in a total cost to the student of approximately $250,000 with interest and penalties.

If you factor that cost into the plus earnings from a college degree, you discover that your college degree is only worth a net value of $2,300 a year if you work a full 45 years and $3,300 if you retire after 30 years.

If, however, you invested the same $2,300 per year in certificates of deposit, over a 45 year period, you would have approximately $350,000 in accrued principal and and clear.

Here's my point: the only means of determining the value of a college education is the dollars and cents exercise. Where you end up in life is more about luck than it is about education. What I find interesting is that an editor of Boston Magazine, which hasn't improved much since I ghosted articles for their writers, is so lacking in perspective that she doesn't see that she is educated and therefore disgruntled. Education causes disgruntlement because it gives the disgruntled a perspective to be disgruntled about.
No one who had their life transformed by a good university education would ever question as to whether universities are over. Great piece.
No one who had their life transformed by a good university education would ever question as to whether universities are over. Great piece.
No one who had their life transformed by a good university education would ever question whether universities are over. Great piece.
This has been a good read, both the articles and each comment. Education has become one of my passions in life which was discovered by having to edit documentaries. I am a huge fan of Sir Ken Robinson who has a very high profile on the web,, Facebook and Twitter. Educating for our future is the grassroots of helping all cultures by adding a discipline, ability to reason and think for yourself approaches to life. I received an honorary degree but regret just a bit not going to college the conventional route... it took longer :-) Thanks again for this blog.