Yearn to learn - or earn?

What's the purpose of a college education?

If you're faced with tuition bills that threaten to match Bill Gates's net worth, it's likely you've pondered this at length.

First, you recall those smug high-schoolers who are bypassing ivied campuses on their way to well-paying tech jobs.

But OK, that's not typical. So you return to musing - and to the job issue. Pay such big bucks and it may not seem worth it to be able to wax eloquent about the War of Jenkins' Ear while working in the pizza parlor.

The college experience has long been viewed as a ticket to a secure future. But decade by decade, there seems to be less general trust in the ability of a liberal-arts education to yield both a life of the mind and economic stability.

The question, What do you do with an English degree? is not exactly new, of course. But sticker shock, increased competitiveness, and a lack of common ground in defining a "good" education have produced in people from all social and economic backgrounds a more-intense interest in a measurable payoff from college.

So how should liberal-arts schools approach their job? Pressure has grown to provide gilded facilities and more "pragmatic" courses, as you'll see in our cover story. This doesn't mean that iron gates bearing Latin exhortations to attain wisdom will soon sport the maxims of Donald Trump. But schools are changing to accommodate a pervasive "show me the money" mentality. And given our love affair with a high-tech, consumer-oriented life, it seems that the liberal arts - already in decline in terms of majors - will continue their bumpy ride.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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