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Is college worth what it costs?

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ANN HERMES/STAFF

(Read caption) FROM LEFT: NEW ROCHELLE (N.Y.) HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS MATISSE CLAYTON, HALEIGH DOHERTY, ESTEBAN ACEVEDO, ADAUGO EZIKE, AND CAMILLE N’DIAYE-MULLER

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Few novels or films are set in the world of the middle class. The glitter of “Downton Abbey” and the grittiness of police dramas are far more exciting. The desire to improve, the steadiness required to become financially secure, the care and sacrifice that attempts to ensure that the next generation does better than the current one — that is the unromantic, undramatic, but central narrative of middle-class life. 

Take the complex, often stressful world of middle-class children, parents, teachers, and counselors who must make the crucial and costly decision about which college a high school graduate will attend. This is the story repeated in household after household. Education is the biggest factor in future success. It is also the biggest cost most families — and certainly most students — face. For almost 40 years, college costs in the United States have risen faster than any other goods or services. 

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So making the right decision is a team effort. Many homes are like that of Matisse Clayton, whose family opened its doors to writer Barbara Kantrowitz and photographer Ann Hermes. These resemble military command centers where college choices are assessed, finances are reviewed, and letters, essays, and records are sent and received to try to determine which college is best. There’s no pat answer. An expensive school may be affordable because of scholarships or grants. A cheaper school may be a better fit. Debt and part-time work may be unavoidable. 

One of the wisest observations in Barbara’s report comes from a guidance counselor who told one young woman that, despite all the angst over the college admissions process, in 10 years it won’t matter what school was chosen: “you will look back and college will have been great.” That is the experience most college graduates have. Sure, the social network that an prestigious institutions like Yale or Harvard offers is an asset in life. Yes, great educators are better than mediocre ones. But education has far more variables to it than a school’s pedigree, star faculty, or the feeling a prospective student gets walking around the campus during whirlwind tour.  

I went to a cow college. (Really. The school’s mascot was and still is a bovine.) I took hard classes and easy ones, listened to noted professors and unknown teaching assistants. Like most other college kids, I had fun, studied, didn’t study, and worked part-time. I’m not in any way saying that conditions in 2014 are the same as in my day. Today’s economy is far tougher, college costs far higher, the job market tighter. But I’m sure of one thing: Higher education isn’t just the acquisition of a resume entry. It is a mental journey.

 One morning a teaching assistant used E.M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” to spark a memorable (to me at least) discussion about syncretic religious systems. Later that day or week, a stern mathematics professor failed to make me understand differential equations. Sometime around then, a political science class detoured from theory onto the real-time 1972 presidential election. And the next day, another set of mental challenges and opportunities occurred.

All of that and more is part of me, just as everything that Matisse Clayton will experience at Binghamton University, Esteban Acevedo at Dartmouth, Haleigh Doherty at Fairfield, and Camille N’Diaye-Muller at Harvard will be a part of them. No matter where they chose to go, 10 or 40 years from now they’ll look back -- and college will have been great.

 John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.