“I paid $120,000… to accept a four-year degree in a language I already spoke”

I like comedian John Mulaney a lot. Which must be welcome news to comedian John Mulaney, since he claims to need “everybody, all day long, to like me so much” in his popular Netflix special, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City. “It’s exhausting.” But also hilarious — even brilliant. Skip ahead to 7:21 in this Stephen Colbert interview for a preview of the avowedly apolitical Mulaney’s famous metaphor for the Trump presidency:

So yes, I like John Mulaney a lot.

But one bit earlier in the special never fails to make me like John Mulaney a bit less:

“I already gave [my college] $120,000 and now they have the audacity to ask me for more money,” he says of getting a fundraising letter from his alma mater.

What kind of a cokehead relative is my college?… What did I get for my money? What is college?… I went to college, and I have no idea what it was… By the way, I agreed to give them $120,000 when I was seventeen years old, with no attorney present. That’s illegal!… They pulled me out of high school; I was in sweat pants, all confused. Two guys in clip-on ties are like, “Come on, son, do the right thing. Sign here and you’ll be an English major.” I was like, “Okay.” That’s right, you heard me: an English major… I paid $120,000 for someone to tell me to go read Jane Austen, and then I didn’t. That’s the worst use of 120 grand I can possibly fathom.

Even buying a “duffel bag of fake cocaine” would be more useful, he jokes, “…way better than walking across a stage at graduation, hungover in a gown, to accept a certificate for reading books I didn’t read, strolling across the stage, the sun in my eyes, my family watching as I sweat vodka and ecstasy, to accept a four-year degree in a language I already spoke.”

Now, Mulaney did major in English — and minor in theology — at Georgetown University. (Which would nowadays cost well over $200,000 for four years.) But I have no idea how he used his time there, or how bitter he genuinely is about his education. He’s doing alright for himself, perhaps not even in spite of his expensive English major, and is on good enough terms with Georgetown to have done a scholarship benefit whose top tickets ran $5,000.

River view of Georgetown University's main campus
By the way, Georgetown is where Mulaney’s mother and father went to college — with Bill Clinton — before they continued on to Yale Law — also with Bill Clinton — and landed jobs as, respectively, a Northwestern law professor and a high-profile lawyer — who represented Bill Clinton. See the end of Mulaney’s previous Netflix special, The Comeback Kid, for that story — image: Creative Commons (Patrick Neil)

It’s a stand-up act. But Mulaney’s normally inoffensive humor bites when the jokes echo non-jokey claims made so often about higher education… especially at private universities like Georgetown and Bethel… and specially especially about the humanities. (“That’s right, an English major!”) It’s funny because it evokes something ridiculous: what most assume is the impossibly vast gap between the cost of such an education and the actual value of it.

Of course, it’s actually because the value of a private liberal arts education is so high that I wish the cost were lower.

It keeps me up nights that the price tag for a place like Georgetown, or even Bethel, can become an impediment for students who come from much less affluent backgrounds than Mulaney’s. I hate the idea that schools like my graduate alma mater (tuition + room and board: nearly $70,000 per year) will continue to have thriving History majors because they cater to the children of privilege, while the vast majority of institutions of higher ed end up cutting such programs in order to help remain affordable for middle and working class students who feel compelled to rush through more “practical” or “marketable” pathways.

John Mulaney in 2014
Really, I do like John Mulaney… – image: Creative Commons (Dominck D)

You may recall that I once passed along a former college president’s proposal to overhaul the liberal arts college and make it cost $40,000, rather than 3-5 times that much, for four years of an English major. But after ample discussion, the sense I got was that few thought that option desirable or practicable.

Which swings me back to a wildly different premise: a private liberal arts education, as offered in the context of a four-year residential college with a robust co-curriculum, is bound to be very expensive. Highly-skilled professors are doing high-touch work that demands relatively high pay for relatively inefficient results. Some of it requires expensive equipment, specialized space, and dedicated resources for research. On top of it all, students expect extensive amenities, services, and opportunities that add to the overall cost.

Perhaps a massive government subsidy of free college for all will save state institutions from the cost disease, but what of private colleges that pursue particular missions in smaller communities with broader curricula that aren’t meant simply to serve national or state economic needs? I’m sure there are marginal efficiencies to be gained at most such institutions, but perhaps we need to stop looking for the disruptive innovation that will offer anything like the same quality of education with much lower expenses. Instead, do we need to simply admit that private colleges can only win on value, not cost?

I worry that institutions like mine — which lack the name recognition, perceived excellence, affluent alumni base, and celebrity-draped fundraising capabilities of Mulaney’s alma mater — think they can have it both ways. Even as we claim to offer the immeasurable value of a transformative education, we try to compete with lower-cost peers… by taking steps that undercut our value proposition — e.g., by eliminating faculty and programs at the very center of the liberal arts and/or shifting more of the teaching load to contingent faculty who are overworked and underpaid.

We can try to slow the growth in tuition, but I fear we’ll rise or fall on our ability to convince the people who applaud Mulaney’s bit that spending $120,000 for a degree in a language they already speak — or a history they already think they know — is actually one of the wisest investments they can make.