Bill Wood Analytics

Can We Please Raise the Bar in the Debate on the Economics of College

The value of a college education has less to do with what you pay for it, and more to do with what you put in to it.

Education would be so much more effective if its purpose were to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they don't know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.
--Sir William Haley, British newspaper editor and broadcasting administrator

Let’s get one thing established right at the beginning—the primary reason for going to college is NOT to get a job. That’s right--the most important purpose of a college education is not to procure an offer of employment upon graduation. Nor is it to drive up the bidding for your services in the marketplace just because you have a degree. That may indeed happen, but it is secondary benefit.

The recent trend of evaluating and eventually justifying the college experience based on a graduate’s job prospects is “dumbing down” a complex, but ultimately valuable process. It is antithetical to the idea of critical thinking. In fact, the people who insist on arguing the most important reason for college is directly based on a career choice need more education.

The purpose of college is to provide a person with an opportunity for personal growth and development—with an emphasis on personal. When done right, college will empower a person to become a self-governing citizen. You can expand that role to a self-governing, industrious citizen if you wish, but the cornerstone of our democracy--and therefore our precious personal liberty--is the citizen, not a lawyer or an entrepreneur or an organized laborer. As a nation we are in desperate need of citizens who can capably engage the vast array of choices which confront us all on a daily basis.

A large number of these choices will involve our capitalism-based marketplace, but many of life’s most vexing choices and situations do not have easy, market-based solutions. An educated citizen has a higher probability to make the best use of all of these personal choices, no matter if their choice of career turns out to be plumbing, auto mechanics, or brain surgery.

That is not to say that you cannot pick up some valuable information on nursing, or computer programming, or accounting while attending college. And it cannot be denied that a large number of prospective employers are looking for people who have successfully engaged the process of becoming educated.

There is a market-based reason for this. Employers are limited in what they can ask job applicants, and they are also limited in their ability to verify what they can ask. So they need some criteria upon which to make their choices in order to increase their chances of success with new hires, especially when there is little to no job history to investigate.

In most cases, degree recipients have demonstrated some ability to be self-starters, think critically, take instruction, solve complicated problems, and communicate with others. These skills are transferable, and they are useful in the marketplace. Since most employers are limited in their ability to evaluate copiously their prospective new hires, the acquisition of a degree is a reasonable indicator of the whether a job applicant is capable of performing the requisite tasks.

Therefore, a college degree can be very valuable in applying for a job in a competitive marketplace. But a successful life is much more than just having a career. So we must adjust our process of evaluation accordingly. The pervasive, yet misguided exercise of trying to determine the value of an education based on the expected salary after graduation is counterproductive at best, and I believe that it is a major contributor to the burgeoning problem of student debt.

Young people, who by definition lack experience and the wisdom that can accrue with age, have been all too willing to borrow large sums of money based on the belief that they will pay it back after they graduate and get a great job. But for many, that is a sucker’s bet. Easy access to money is usually a problem for young people, and the staggering total of student loan debt outstanding bears this out.

This is hardly surprising in a culture that is so consumer-oriented. With the aid of the internet, we quickly learn the price of everything. Armed with this knowledge, we increasingly use an approach to life’s choices that would make an accountant proud. But that is not the way life works. A good education is the best solution for avoiding these pitfalls, but it must be earned—not purchased.

A valuable college experience will include a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of discussion. It will include memorization, problem sets, deadlines, and pressure. A student should be challenged, pushed, coached, and even tested. Upon receipt of a degree, a student should have some ideas about what they are good at, the skills they possess, and the topics that inspire them. And they should also have a clear sense of their deficiencies.

To put it another way, job training is intended to inform a person how to go into the marketplace and get what they want. An education will teach one what is worth wanting.

In other words, a good college education properly obtained is priceless.

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