Thursday, November 10, 2011

Educational Value(s)

                Three things recently have converged to prompt this post. The first two are entwined: it’s budgeting season, and that means we have to look at tuition rates for the coming year. Those topics have been foremost in my mind. In fact, early Monday morning I was thinking about them when CNN had a piece on whether or not a college degree is a worthwhile investment.
                In fact, that’s a rather hot topic right now. I Googled “Is college worth it?” and received 725,000,000 hits. The recent press about the Thiel Fellows who were granted $100,000 to skip college and begin start-up businesses drew some attention. It’s prompted, of course, by the epic tales of people like Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg having not completed college and endingd up incredibly rich and influential. (I’m reading Isaacson’s biography of Jobs—stay tuned for my thoughts when I finish.)
                I understand the concerns. After all, in a few years my ninth grade daughter and sixth grade son will be deciding on college. The costs have skyrocketed to what a few years ago would have been incomprehensible levels. Most of the anger is directed at the colleges, but I think there is plenty of blame to go around. Certainly colleges took advantage of the economic prosperity we enjoyed for a while, and they also reveled in the demographic bubble and consumer anxiety that led to hyper-competitive admission activity. At the same time, though, people began looking for features and amenities that really had little to do with the ultimate goals of college. Take a look at some of the luxurious student centers. Heck, take a look at some dorms.
                Let’s briefly recap the general points on each side of the argument. Yes, I know that I will be oversimplifying.
The anti-college side argues that one can succeed without college. After all, look at the examples above. These are people who dented the universe, and they didn’t finish college. The anti-college folks also say that most of what one needs can be better learned through experience; that one needs to be in the real world, not the ivory tower.
The pro-college side points out that the average person’s potential income is much higher with a college degree. The CNN piece pointed out how unemployment levels drop as degrees grow higher, i.e. people with a master’s are less likely to be unemployed than those with a bachelors, who are less likely than those with just a high school degree, and so on.
With just a little bit of basic Internet research and a modicum of logic, I could support or refute either one of these arguments. Even without the research, I would ask some simple questions. For example, I’d ask if Steve Jobs really makes for a compelling example since he is such an outlier. But I’m not interested in intellectual debate here, particularly over what strikes me as an ultimately unsolvable issue.
My issue with both sides is much more basic than that. It’s one in which my idealism trumps my practicality. It’s one at which I can hear some people scoffing. It’s one that I sometimes forget amidst the realities of life. It’s one I hope I never lose.
My issue is simple…but it’s not. Both sides reduce the value of a college education to pure dollars. To return on investment. By extension, I guess this thinking applies to all education.
It’s worth more than that. At least, it is when done right.
It’s about the growth that happens when someone discovers potential she had never perceived in herself. It’s about a person becoming enamored with a topic he had once dismissed. It’s about being challenged by the experiences and perspectives of those around you. It’s about those aha moments. It’s about a young person figuring out what sort of person he or she wants to become…and doesn’t want to. It’s about pondering the ever-morphing complexities of the human experience. It’s about training the mind for even heavier lifting. It’s about making a contribution. It’s about life-long learning.
I’d also contend that society would be much better off with a more highly-educated populace. Imagine, for instance, if people were better critical thinkers when it comes to political elections. In another example, we might be less doomed to repeat history if we understood its arc better. Perhaps we would consider meaningful discourse to be more than the current cacophony of sound bites and vitriol.
I know these are rather quixotic musings. Sometimes I also wonder if all the tuition I pay for my kids is worth it. But I believe that, ironically, when we think of education in purely financial terms, we actually cheapen it. We shouldn’t think of it in terms of price point. After all, ultimately it’s priceless.


Dr. Troy P. Roddy said...


Well put! I have been reading the same articles, watching the same reports, and wondering the same thing.

If education was purely measured in terms of financial return on investment, I would predict that MANY schools would be closed.

Thank you for offering a different and respectful voice to this issue.

Mark Crotty said...

Thanks for the kind words, Troy. You're exactly right about many schools would close. I suspect most of the for-profit ones would be at the front of the list.