Distinguished alumni

It's a tricky matter for a place like Eastern College/University to produce an alumnus like Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson went from Eastern to Harvard Law School. This, in itself, is cause for institutional pride — it highlights that the quality of education the school provides is acceptable even to the elite centers of higher education.

At the same time, Stevenson's acceptance at Harvard Law probably had cartoon dollar signs appearing in the eyes of Eastern's alumni office. Harvard Law usually means the big bucks, and graduates making the big bucks are valuable assets for any college.

This is an inescapable feature of how higher education is structured in America. The financial success of alumni provides a double benefit. First, it allows the school to promote itself to prospective students as a place where you too can be equipped to go out and make your fortune. Second, it creates a source of future income for the school, as wealthy alumni become wealthy donors.

These two factors reinforce one another, and both create powerful incentives that further distort the school's educational mission. The implicit notion that this is the purpose of education — as a stepping stone to future wealth — is made more explicit.

At its best, Eastern is proud of alumni like Bryan Stevenson. The school is proud, and rightly so, that it helped to produce someone who has placed the pursuit of justice ahead of the pursuit of personal financial gain.

Yet one also detects a faint whiff of something else. The school's genuine desire to produce more such champions of justice also carries with it a note of fear — What if all of our alumni were to do this? What would happen to alumni giving? And can you really attract prospective students to a $17,000-a-year institution with the promise of earning a lousy $25,000 a year working alongside the poor, the despised and the outcast?

I don't pretend to have the answers for Eastern or for other institutions struggling to balance their financial realities with their commitments to justice and public service. The deck seems to be stacked against the latter.

Bryan Stevenson is also a graduate of Harvard Law School. His current income at the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama is not sufficient to pay even the interest on student loans from that institution. One assumes, then, that Harvard is able to make allowances for exceptions like Stevenson. This ultra-expensive, top-tier law school can apparently accommodate a small minority of public-service-minded graduates. But how many?

Harvard at least makes some such accommodation. That's an improvement over most law schools, where graduates are sent out saddled with so much debt that they have no choice but to pursue a high-income career track. Public service is, for most young lawyers, not a viable option. Nor is it for most young doctors, or young writers, or accountants, or scientists.

All of which raises the essential and seldom-asked question: What is education for?

Cold institutional realities weigh against high-minded talk of public service, or of knowledge for knowledge's sake, or of pursuing the good, the beautiful and the true.

The very structure of American higher education only allows one answer: college is a means of increasing future financial potential. This reduces education to mere career preparation. That makes even the most prestigious Ivy League school little more than a glorified vo-tech.

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  • Chris Quinones

    And heaven help you if the return on your investment doesn’t measure up. I got my accounting degree from NYU in the hope that it would improve my job prospects, and that hasn’t proven true so far. I chose accounting in the first place so I’d never need to worry about finding work, and that hasn’t proven true. You know America’s in trouble when folks can’t even sell out successfully any more.

  • Reagan

    You’ve nailed it. As a student in a PhD program, I know that I want to make a difference in the world, make some discovery that will have a real positive impact on society. The problem of how to make that a reality is clear even at this early stage of my training. Pharmaceutical companies can have that impact, but it is secondary to their real purpose of creating profit for shareholders. Academic institutions have a great potential to make that impact, but choosing that road can make it difficult to provide for a family. And that’s to say nothing about the role alumni/ae play in the sustaining of education at their respective schools.
    In a few years I’ll have an answer, I suppose.

  • steve

    This seems to point to the worth of the concept of AmeriCorps…
    Since education is so expensive, why not have a government program to reward graduates with some debt reduction in exchange for a couple years of public/community service jobs. I’d love to see this this program championed and expanded. Those couple years of community service work could really help breed a generation of people that look beyond themselves and what’s in it for them.
    How long ago it seems that we had a president that challenged us to “Ask not…”

  • Steve

    This reminds me of a good Tony Campolo story (Eastern College/University alumnus and professor):
    After a sermon challenging young people to choose a path of service to others, rather than simply careers where they can make a lot of money, a man came up to him and said sarcastically “So, what do you want? My daughter to become the next Mother Teresa?”
    To which Tony responded: “What would be wrong with that?”
    To which I add: what WOULD be wrong with that?

  • Matt

    If you make less than $30,000 as a public interest lawyer, the government will pay off you law school loans

  • carla

    Ah, now there’s a deep question: What is education for?
    Yes, on some level you’re correct about high-level vo-tech schools, but keep in mind, (1) these jobs don’t just pay better than HVAC or auto repair, they also are in general more interesting, and (b) the degrees, along with the earlier degrees the person possesses, are likely to enable a wider variety of occupations than the usual vo-tech degree. So it’s not a simple equation of high-power school = lots o money.
    Second, just because one has gotten the education doesn’t mean one will actually get to use it. The accountant in the earlier comment is one such, and I’m another: I wanted to be a professor, got the degree from one of the high-power institutions (and did well in that process)–but finished at the absolute nadir of hiring for my discipline and ended up doing something entirely else just to eat. Then again, most professors don’t exactly make a lot of money, so maybe your original equation doesn’t quite work in this case.

  • Chris Tessone

    My school, Knox College, has this same sort of dual-intent thing going on. We send plenty of students on to Harvard, Yale, Chicago, and so forth. Then plenty of them enter public interest work or academia. It seems like we mostly get by on the contributions of a few of the more materially-minded, who still have good hearts as a result of coming here, but our endowment is smallish.
    Wouldn’t that be the ideal, though? Graduating students who are looking forward to pursuing lucrative careers in corporate law and business and so forth, but community-minded enough to turn around and give that money away, to the college, charities, etc.?

  • gazould

    My school, Southwestern Law, gives scholarship to students who are serious about public interest, and provides grants to those working in public interest during the summer and after graduation. Unfortunately, when loan forgiveness programs are too generous, people have an interest in povery law for just long enough to get their loans repaid. At least I know for sure that my colleagues in public interest will be motivated by something besides money.

  • Charles

    “The very structure of American higher education only allows one answer: college is a means of increasing future financial potential. This reduces education to mere career preparation.”
    I only partially agree, even though my existence proves your point. As an adult student, I am pursuing my degree in healthcare informatics in hopes that I will never again be laid off. I have broken my teenage vow that I would not go to college unless I could go solely for the love of learning; degrees and graduation and fatty paychecks be damned. I’m in it for the money. (Though it’s wonderful being at a gourmet feast of knowledge every night!)
    But as disgusting as I find my own attitude, I am far more repulsed by America’s growing belief that higher education is a right, not a privilege. I know dozens of people for whom college was their time to “come of age”, a place to drink and screw and break all of the rules that mommy and daddy made rather than study something about which they are passionate. I’m not opposed to drinking or sex or breaking rules, but I am opposed to people who drop 25K every year so they (or their kid) can do it in the guise of education. It would be lovely to see a movement towards high school grads joining AmeriCorps or some other well-intentioned organization before they head off to college. This way, they’d get a much more honest view of the world, and some good might come from their late-teen rebellion.

  • Soaked with the grace of God

    One thing I love about the Internet is that on any morning you can be inspired by the life and work of someone you had never heard of before, with little effort.