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.