The Expensive Stepping Stone

Tomorrow, the board of trustees at Princeton is expected to approve a plan that will change a substantial portion of middle-and lower-income students' financial aid packages to include more grants and fewer loans. This plan will cost the school $6 million per year. To remain more competetive with state schools (since the price of education is still rising), this new package is expected to retain students who would otherwise look elsewhere.

This new package is somewhat surprising at a time when financial aid packages at the most competitive schools tend to be similar. But it points to the fact that some schools may be feeling pressure from state schools with lower tuition. It also points to the fact that students are opting in favor of lower tuition at other schools. But not us.

So, what exactly have Harvard students paid for?

Most obviously, we have bought a name. But the glamour of a name can only sustain us for so long--and in this case it fades during our first year. In some ways it is necessary. Only by treating Harvard as our own College, and dismissing the fact that our time here is a mere speck in its history, can we take advantage of the opportunities.

Those of us who served as prefects were told to help first-years adjust the image of fair Harvard to fit the reality of being here. Only by accepting that Harvard is a college (with a lower case "c") like any other would students feel like they belong here. But if the name does not last beyond our first year's tuition, have we gained anything?

Behind the name is access to an outstanding number of resources. Seldom do we have to ask for inter-library loans since Widener contains most everthing. Any periodical we would want is some-where here, albeit scattered among the many libraries. We have rented for ourselves quite a library. Does education simply involve giving us access to vast resources and then expecting us to find our own way?

A good education must involve something more. Such a bewildering array of resources requires some advising. Students complain about the lack of helpful academic advising since many advisers are either unfamiliar with requirements or lack the time to help students adequately. And yet, obviously we have not bought wonderful advising with our tuition.

Then perhaps all those student surveys are true. Perhaps we know that we are buying the name not for ourselves but for the impact it has on our future, with the hope that there is something behind the name that will bring us lasting luck.

Professors have decried the results of the recent UCLA student survey which found that, compared to 20 years ago, a much larger percentage of students wanted to prepare themselves for a good job rather than grow intellectually. This has led students to feel comfortable spending substantially more time sleeping in class, since some or all of their coursework is unimportant to any profession they would choose to have. Is Harvard just a stepping stone for our future endeavors?

In some ways, the Harvard system encourages us to look at it as a stepping stone. We don't get much time to explore. We have to decide our concentrations much earlier than one would at most other schools, and that concentration is usually limited to one department, again unlike other schools. At the beginning of my last semester, I find myself looking through the Courses of Instruction booklet one last time, and realizing the number of courses I had once wished to take and never got the chance. There are so many areas that we seniors haven't explored--even with the Core requirements.

What is a true liberal arts education? As a science major, I often complain that I am leaving with oodles of information that are not useful in the real world and yet have missed out on so many of the topics, theories and names that I should know. Humanities concentrators are closer to receiving a true liberal arts education, yet even they complain that they are leaving with no information to use in the real world--just abstract theories.

I am somewhat skeptical of the idea that we are "learning how to learn," a theory that career advisers and Harvard bureaucrats like to use. If this is true, then we would hardly need the Core curriculum or the QRR since every class would impart the same fundamental knowledge. But if we are not going to use what we learn, and we are not learning to learn, then ultimately we must be buying the name for our future.

This idea explains why we so easily get caught up in the momentum of ambition. Because we know that Harvard is just a step, we push to jump as high as we can when were ready to leave here. Just taking classes is not enough; time must be devoted to many extracurriculars as well. Summers must be composed of internships, not jobs. We don't even use the word "high-powered" since there is nothing low-powered here. And even the jobs we take once we leave here must lead to somewhere. Is it worth it?

In some ways, such early exposure to the rat race is beneficial. We can see what the top looks like in almost any field before we have to make the decision to try to reach it. We can decide for ourselves whether we can be content without success and whether we would live more happily and comfortably in an environment numbering fewer Napoleons. Being a mover-and-shaker in the world has always seemed very exciting.

What have we ultimately bought for ourselves? Yes, resources, faculty and all the other items mentioned in glossy brochures. But what is not mentioned, and what is most important of all, we have bought a glimpse of the real world and the endless struggle of men and women to realize their ambitions. And we have bought for ourselves the ability to make an educated decision about how much of our lives we are willing to sacrifice to that struggle.

This is Tanya Dutta's final column.

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