$47,000.00 an hour?

I am a professor at a small liberal arts college, and I love my job. I do my best to provide help my students develop, learn, and reach their full potential. Most days I think I do a pretty good job at this. But one of the enduring, needling little voices in my head asks “Are you worth it?”  Students today are going into more and more debt to come to my school (as well as many schools across the country). Are they still getting their money’s worth?

Many people involved in my profession shrug this question off, either saying “Of course education is worth it, education helps job outcomes of many sorts, people who graduate from college are less likely to be employed and have higher salaries.” Or “Not everything needs have a price tag, I am helping to develop and transform young minds, I can’t be bothered by putting a dollar figure on my work.”

And I am sympathetic to each of these thoughts, but they don’t work for me. Education in general is of course beneficial, but is the education that I personally provide, beneficial to these particular students? That I am not always so certain of. And of course not everything should have a price tag. But money is just choices, made concrete. Every month when that miniscule slice of my college debt gets withdrawn from my bank account, that’s money I can’t spend on my kids camps, or new clothes, or donuts. I know that I am costing my students thousands of future donuts, and I need to ask myself, “Am I worth it?”

This week is one of those that I think I am, and I thought I would share why with you. I think it gets at why people in my profession resist simple economic models of services delivered, or value as average cost divided by conveniently measurable benefit. The past two weeks I have met with my 40 advisees to help them choose their fall classes. Most I meet with for half an hour, but some for longer. Some of this time is devoted to helping them navigate our full and rigorous curriculum. At Randolph-Macon we swim against a few tides in higher education, one is that we still require a degree of proficiency in foreign language (what amounts to four semesters of college language). Another is that we require four science and math courses, two of which must be labs. But as I help students choose their classes, I also help them choose their major, or if it is a psychology major, I help them choose careers paths and advise them on steps along that path. Sometimes, students are full steam ahead, coming in knowing what they want, and charging to get it, only basically needing logistical help. Other times students have really struggled with a class or field that they once loved, and are lost. Sometimes these are the same student a year apart.

Relevant to the title, I am starting to feel that these one-on-one advising sessions are some of the highest value that I provide here. I have to keep in mind the logistical complexities of our curriculum as well as the current and future interests of that student. But also, I show them that I am a human being who is sympathetic to their struggles and wants them to succeed. Packing all of this into a half an hour or even an hour is really exhausting, but I can tell it helps. I have a feeling it helps even more then either of us realize. I might even go so far as to say that this hour is worth the tuition here (even though 99% of our students receive some sort of financial aid, and our average price is closer to half the advertised tuition).

Why does this hour help so much? Because it isn’t just an hour. It is hundreds of hours packed into one. It is me reaching out to admissions officers at graduation schools of clinical psychology, trying to tell what can make some applicants from smaller schools stand out. It is me going to bed thinking about what kinds of strategies would help students realize the importance of freshmen year, while still letting them make their own mistakes. It is me being on a first name basis with the psychologist who is the head of our mental health clinic, and being able to tell the difference between a student who needs to be walked over to the clinic right then, or one who should be gently nudged because if they are forced to go it won’t help.

The value of expertise is uneven, in education doubly so. Yeats said that education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire, but it is both, and more. Sometimes students have fires that need to put out, others have fuel that needs igniting. Most of these things don’t work unless students feel that another human being is providing them. When we worry too much about counting the overall value in a diploma, in a major, or in a course, we can lose sight of the concentrated value of a moment.

Anyways, advising is exhausting work. Like a lot of exhausting work with teenagers, they have no idea how much effort it is and how much good it does them. But in response to my nagging “Am I am worth thousands of future donuts?” questions, occasionally an advising session will give rise to another little voice. This voice gently whispers, as a student leaves with their head a little higher, or a little extra lilt in their voice as they are surprised at how helpful advising was, “Yeah. That was it. That was worth it, right there.”