Is College Worth It? The Value of Higher Education
Table of Contents
Making the decision to not pursue a college education purely on cost is short-sighted. While I’ll discuss the variable of cost (as it is just one of a few), this is not an essay that will give you a clean estimated return on your investment in education. There are plenty of those already.
To reduce a decision like this to cost is dangerous for yourself (or your child) as well as our society. If I was 18 myself right now (my girlfriend likes to remind me that I’m still not far off), I would hope to know all the variables and stakes at play so that I could make an informed decision about my future.
Likewise, if I was a parent, I would want my kid to consider the same.
And so, to comprehensively address this question we must first discuss the current realities at play in deciding whether or not to go to university (including cost). And after we’ve covered that, we will narrow the focus to the implications for the individual (you or your child) and society.
When I talk about an education, I am referring to an education that is widely inclusive. Not just vocational studies/training (business, accounting, engineering, medicine), but inclusive of the humanities as well; philosophy, english, history, etc., the “liberal education.”
Now, what realities face higher education?
Let’s address the realities that are at play as we go about making our conclusion as to the worth of a college education:
The hottest response right now is to seek alternatives to the traditional path of a college education…albeit seemingly riskier.
We are all aware of tuition costs (and debt) dramatically rising…
Coding bootcamps are growing, the most risk tolerant among us are advocating for learning on the job reviving an apprenticeship model, and enrollment rates in secondary and tertiary education in the United States have been declining for the previous four years. This is the first time in history this has happened.
The credentials (a college degree) aren’t the sure ticket to a well-paying job that they once were.
Employers are saying graduates are the least prepared they’ve ever been to enter the workforce, and alternative post-grad programs like MissionU are working to directly combat this issue and hopefully shake up the higher education status quo.
We are seeing the growth of Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs which are increasing the accessibility to education, for dirt cheap, and in some cases, with world class instructors.
As the enrollment rates begin to drop many free marketeers proclaim “the market is responding!” Young people and old are beginning to say they won’t pay for a university degree given the cost and dwindling career advantages.
All this considered, we should be cautious to let the “market correct itself” to provide a cheaper and more effective solution. When profit is at stake, the best things for society or an individual can be compromised on…(gasp!).
The “market” has driven many of our academic institutions to become athletic institutions who offer courses on the side as earnings are funneled into buildings, coach salaries, and new stadiums. So, maybe we take care in letting market give us a solution we may or may not want. The “market” in many ways, created the existing circumstance.
So while the existing circumstances look grim for our pursuit of education…turns out, a proper education is something worth fighting for. Why’s that? Let’s explore.
What’s the purpose of an education anyways?
Before we get to what the actual purpose of an education is, we should first address the most common misconceived belief as to why you would pursue a college education.
A college education should prepare us to produce for the economy, get us a good job, with decent pay and security.
This is incorrect. Although, most people it would seem (especially Americans) believe that’s the case. And so, our education system and our culture of education reflects that. Being incepted out of the economic circumstance of the industrial revolution, we’ve assumed for generations we need nothing more than good workers. We encourage that if young people do go to school they learn something practical and don’t waste their time with the study of the liberal arts.
When in fact, it’s been show that humanities majors find more success in the workforce anyways…
For more on this, watch Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk below:
If this were all we needed, then we might as well do away with the institution of college, ya? If all we needed was a vocational education, we should all go learn on the job.
But, the importance of a comprehensive, liberal art education has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In fact, many of our founders thought it so. Benjamin Franklin believed a widely expansive education was the most direct path to better serve humanity.
Thomas Jefferson thought that the liberal art education, an understanding history and how society ran was critical to America remaining a free country and never becoming subject to tyranny, oligarchy and producing an aristocracy (even though today, only 3% of students attending the most competitive universities have come from the bottom 25% of income by household. 74% come from the top 25%) [Source: Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education]
. This was a bipartisan belief. Jefferson’s greatest political rival at the time, John Adams, thought the same.
In fact, none of the greatest minds I’ve researched, be them old dead white guys or not, have said that the purpose of our education is to go learn a marketable skill, or learn how to make money…but of course, we know that education in a society follows wealth (not the other way around).
Rather, like Noam Chomsky said, the ability of an individual to seek out what is significant, to cultivate and practice creative thought, those are the purposes of our education…and making an education more vocationally focused (while putting students in debt) forces students into a life of conformity. All they know how to do is make money and how convenient, they have all this debt to pay off.
If we see that the purpose of college is not the job we get after, but rather something else, are things like credentialism really a problem?
If the purpose of our education was to produce workers for the economy, wouldn’t we just be creating the modern day equivalent of factory workers (while charging them massive amounts of money)?
The True Value of Education
From my research, I have devised that the true value of our education is to not make money, and so should not be simplified to trades/vocations only, but rather it’s to serve two purposes:
- Protect us
- Prepare us (not for a job, but for life’s challenges)
An Education as Protection:
Many of the founders believed that wide access to a comprehensive education would be what kept our society “free,” and allowed us to develop a “natural aristocracy” as Thomas Jefferson called it. A society in which the best and brightest floated to the top and governed the most important affairs.
On a similar thread, John Dewey, a philosopher and psychologist of the late 19th and early 20th century, believed that education’s purpose was not to teach us material but the skills of critical thinking and logical analysis to protect us from manipulation, dangerous assumption or fake news (did you know the less educated an individual was, the more likely they were to vote for Donald Trump? Weird coincidence).
An Education as Preparation:
While our current education system has been built to reflect the interests of producing money (see Ken Robinson’s video above), that’s not what it should prepare us for. I’m not saying prepare us to make living…remember that’s a byproduct.
What problems are facing today’s generations, and what problems will face future generations? Are they tasks and issues that will require assembly line style of thinking? Or something more divergent…
Don’t confuse running Facebook Ads or SEO as skills that aren’t much different than that which was required of the factory worker.
Do we really need more workers? Or, do we need more critical thinkers?
Our environment is degrading, over 40 million Americans live in poverty, 25 percent of our kids do…that’s the highest in the developed world.
Are solving those issues going to require someone who has been taught to make money, or perhaps understand history, society and seek out what’s important?
Protection & Preparation Won’t Come From Any Education…
John Dewey, mentioned earlier, also makes a critically important point, that the student must claim their education.
This is one thing that bothers me about the claims that “our schools” aren’t preparing our kids. While there are uninspired professors, bureaucratically created courses/programs and an overabundance of administrators, what’s the variable that has some kids graduate from one school and find the success they want while other students from the same university don’t?
Well, it’s the student of course. I believe a proper education can be found in either environment, independent of an institution or enrolled in one (while each harbors it’s own risks). But, your education must have the following qualities (source: Don’t Go Back to School: A Handbook For Learning Anything by Kio Stark)
- Community and Collaboration
- Feedback Loop
Curriculum (& Style)
- Real-World Context
Community and Collaboration –
While MOOCs have been great to increase the access and decrease the cost to education, the intention of these platforms weren’t for the already developed world. In fact, these platforms were designed to provide access to a high quality education where they otherwise wouldn’t be one. And, they are doing a wonderful job at that…[Source: Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education]
One of my favorites: MIT Open Courseware
The online platforms are wonderful, but not a chance will they replace the experience of being on campus with a built-in community. Loneliness is already becoming a critical issue, why would we seek to eliminate one of the most social experiences of our life? College.
If you do determine to learn independently of a traditional institution, you must be cognizant of this first and foremost. Learning does happen best in groups.
Feedback Loop –
While many students (and professors) despise the system of grading, it’s important purely for the fact of feedback. While maybe we could do away with the grade and just focus on the evaluation and critique, the pillar of feedback is essential to actually learning anything.
Independently learning or not, this feature must be included. That’s the great thing about enrolling in college. You must finish the paper, you must give the presentation, you must complete the project. And, you will be evaluated on your performance.
Curriculum (& Style) –
Also, the beautiful thing about a traditional college experience (in theory) is that you have an expert on the subject you are studying hand create the curriculum, readings, and the progression of learning it will take for you to become knowledgeable or proficient in the subject at hand.
Missing in the college experience is attentiveness for the learning style of the individual. This understanding must come from you.
As an independent learner however, you have to uncover a curriculum yourself, through interviewing experts, having conversations and research. While certainly rewarding, it’s certainly more intensive and a lot to ask of yourself.
Just consider how many hours a college Eastern European history professor has devoted to studying the history of Eastern Europe?
Real World Context –
Perhaps the largest critique of our college institutions is the lacking real-world context. Learning isn’t transferred from the classroom to the real word [source: Taleb]. While I believe there are many programs (studying abroad), courses, and clubs where you can find this. You do have to seek it out.
Internally Driven –
Learning must be fun. It must be driven by curiosity and intention. That’s how things stick. That’s an important characteristic to how we work as humans.
We must cultivate curiosity, we must be bored with the book, but not reading, we must fall in love with learning. This, is what I enjoy most about being an independent learner…I don’t read anything I don’t want to, but, through pursuing curiosity I read more than I ever have.
Now that we know what our education must look like, how do we decide what path is right for us?
How to Decide: Should I Go to College?
There are a few variables worth considering, the first and most important is:
- YOU (Or your child)
What type of person are you, or is your child? There is a real reason that we have these institutions (colleges) in place to bridge our young people from life at home to life out in the world. Normally, they aren’t mature enough to be completely independent.
This is critically important to acknowledge: To receive a comparable education independently of a traditional college there will be SO MUCH asked of you as an individual.
Not only do you have to begin providing for yourself, paying rent, etc. you as well have to find a community that supports your learning goals, a means to receive feedback and mentorship, develop your own curriculums, and most difficult, keep yourself accountable.
If you think that learning on the job will be enough, then I would say think again…in most of those scenarios all you’ll learn are skills that are meant to produce money. If you are thinking, “what else is there?” then good luck. In most cases, no one in the professional world is taking the time to discuss with you, what’s the purpose of life, what makes a good life, what makes you happy and what makes an equal and free society?
While you may not think these questions are important, pursue making money for a few years and tell me you don’t feel empty.
One thing I find completely misguided is our American culture’s obsession with and glorification of independence.
In college, unlike most other times in an American’s lives, we are thinking as a community. Even if we are just deciding that we will buy cheap champagne and make mimosas on Saturday morning instead of going to the library, we are making the decision together.
Upon leaving college, I think this is something that leads to a post-college funk, we start thinking “I” more than anything else.
- How can I pay rent?
- Where can I afford to live?
- How do I buy a car?
- How do I get a job that I like?
- How do I make friends after college?
There’s something unique to the community based thinking, this “we.” Being an independent thinker is overblown. We have enough of those. Rather, I prefer a critical thinker who sees themselves as part and responsible for a community.
3) Investment –
Such a sad truth that this has to become part of our decision making process, but it does. Not for the sake of the money you are missing out on making for being in school, but rather for the potential crippling effects that debt can have on a young person.
As mentioned earlier, our current education system creates a culture of conformity. You accumulate all this debt attending school and you then have to find a job that pays you well to pay it off. And so the cycle goes.
If you are in a position where you’ll be paying for college 100% out of pocket, I’d strongly encourage considering more cost-friendly alternatives or see how you can find support to getting your education paid for. There are many friendly and helpful organizations that are serving such a need.
To Close: What if I was to do it again?
I am not a college graduate. I withdrew in the second semester of my junior year. So, you may think that I believe college to be a complete waste of time. But, I don’t. If I was 18 and just graduated high school I would do the following:
- Determine what type of education I want (not what type of material I want to study, that’s a waste)
- Do I want to study abroad and travel?
- Do I want to make close friends and be apart of my community?
- Do I want great professors?
- Do I want access to programs that let me create my own course of study?
- Do I want intellectual challenge from my peers?
- Do I want to work on the side? Perhaps pursue an apprenticeship? Or, pursue my own projects at the same time?
- For me, attending school part-time with an open course of study that allowed me to still work or pursue other projects in my other time would be most ideal. Given that’s the case, I’d develop of list of schools/locations that may be best for me.
- Next, I’d asses the cost of these schools, and my own cash/funding scenario.
- Am I getting any support?
- Would I have access to any scholarships or grants?
- Could I negotiate having an employer pay for my education? (Actually possible)
- I would try to mitigate cost as much as possible, knowing which schools I wanted to attend. There is a lot of scholarship money and private money available. We are the wealthiest country in the world…remember?
- Be creative. You can probably go to school for free.
- I would research the best rated professors at my school and take their classes.
- I would participate in programs abroad
- I would enjoy the community and relationships that are built into your college experience.
And lastly, I’d take it one year, one quarter at a time. If you know that the purpose of an education is not the credential (in fact the credential is becoming less and less important), then what’s the rush?
Likewise, if you know that your education and your competencies develop out of your own gumption not given to you by the university you are attending might you take different action?
Frankly, I think the aspects of community, diversity of study, and rich experiences are too important to pass up on. If your primary object for yourself (or your child) is to make money, then college isn’t for you. Also, don’t think that.
I believe entering into a bit of a broken system with the awareness of it’s faults can still allow you to make the best of it.
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