ADAA Monthly: Making College Worth the Cost

In this monthly column, George Miller, TUJ’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs (ADAA), shares what’s going on at Temple University, Japan Campus (TUJ) and with his life in Tokyo. For this edition, he writes about the value of going to college and the importance of building community.


A student approached me recently saying she was accepted for graduate school at two of the top universities in the United States, among the best higher education institutions in the world.

“That’s amazing,” I said. “Congratulations!”

While she was excited, her enthusiasm was tempered a bit by the reality of the situation — the tuition and cost of living expenses would be around $130,000 (approximately ¥14,500,000).

“Is it worth it?” she asked.

I had no idea how to respond.

I don’t know how you put a value on an education or how you measure the return on the investment that is college. I definitely don’t know how you justify the extreme costs of the elite universities.

We had this conversation the day before prosecutors in the United States announced that they were filing charges against 50 people in six states in connection to a massive, multi-university admissions scandal. Wealthy parents allegedly paid for their children to get into college, spending more than $25 million over 8 years.

When that scandal broke, my social media feed immediately filled with posts saying that college is a scam.

It’s a refrain I’ve been hearing more and more since becoming a full-time professor in 2007, which was just before the global economic crash. When the world economies collapsed and jobs became scarce, parents and their children started questioning whether college was worth the price. Is college even necessary?

It’s not enough of an answer to say that you need a college degree to get a good job, which is sort of true, but that’s not the point of getting a university education. Employers want college educated people because there are certain assumptions made about college — that the experience will give you a well-rounded look at the world, critical-thinking skills and the ability to communicate, plus focused training for future careers.

Those of us in education need to answer the pragmatic questions with practical answers.

This is what I tell people who question the price of college: yes, it’s insane these days. I believe that a college education should be seen as a common good and subsidized by citizens accordingly.

But people should also think about the benefits of college well beyond the ability to find employment.

When you come to college, you are paying for more than the classroom experience, and access to the library and other academic services and resources. You are paying to be part of a community. And that community can become a support system that you will rely on for the rest of your life.

When I was an undergrad, I took several classes with Professor Andrew Ciofalo (pictured below), a Brooklyn-born former journalist who taught a variety of writing and communications courses. His classes were hands-on. He threw problems at us and challenged us to solve them. It was fun, actually, to the point that I didn’t think about it being education.

As a then-aspiring journalist, he suggested I go to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, his alma mater. If I did, he said, he’d take me on his journalism program to Italy as an instructor.

We stayed in touch after graduation. He wrote one of my reference letters for Columbia. And after I graduated from there, I asked him about the Italy program. It wasn’t running yet, he said. Soon.

A decade after he made his promise, I stopped by his office and found a poster on his door for a multimedia journalism program he was running in Italy.

“You promised!” I said.

So he invited me. I taught with him in Italy during five summer programs. He and I drove around the Italian countryside in search of the best gelato while talking about school and journalism.

He’s recently moved to Russia and we’ve talked about me visiting. Because he was more than my college professor. He became family.

That’s what I paid for when I was an undergrad. I developed lifelong connections to people — with my roommates, the students I played baseball with, the student-journalists from the school newspaper, etc.

I’ve tried to do the same with my students over the years.

I have one former student, Chris Banks, with whom I have communicated several times per week since he was in my class in 2007, even now despite me being in Tokyo and him in Philadelphia. Another former student, Tommy Rowan (pictured below), gave a toast at my wedding reception in January. One of my grads, Mari Saito, now lives in Tokyo and works in journalism, so we get together and chat, just like we did in 2008, when she was a student interning in Tokyo. She’s the person who first brought me to Azabu Hall at Temple University, Japan Campus.

I try to encourage students to take part in the greater university community here at Temple. Don’t just go on trips with the Office of Student Services. Get to know the people who work in that office. Spend time with the academic advisors and find common experiences and interests. Join student organizations outside your career trajectory just to learn about other students and other potential life paths. Visit professors during their office hours, even if you aren’t in their classes. Just ask them questions, learn a little bit and build connections that you both can rely on for years to come.

I’m not talking about college as networking. I’m talking about learning in a holistic way, in the classroom and beyond, with that education continuing long after your years at Temple.

There’s no doubt you can be a successful person in life – however you define that – without a college education.

But life is so much more rewarding when you have a community of people who share your interests and passions, with whom you can communicate during good times and bad.

I don’t know how you put a price tag on that community.