Articles about the value of a college education are not in short supply currently. The cost of a university degree continues to increase and opportunities for recent college graduates remain limited with the continuing economic challenges. It’s not surprising that columns and blogs in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, among other publications, either question the value of higher education entirely or value education in purely economic terms.
Even educators are reflecting on the value of college. As you might expect, this is being done in a more thoughtful fashion than in the mainstream media. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article titled How to Assess the Real Payoff of a College Degree discusses the issue at length and is worth a read, as is the commentary What Is College For?
My belief is that when we try to assess the value of a college education and look at it only in terms of dollars and cents, or in preparation for a particular job, we cheapen the discourse on the topic. It certainly is important that we leave university with a set of skills that can contribute to gainful employment. And, given that we spend a tremendous amount of money and time on education, we should be looking to get the most from our investment.
But the true value of education doesn’t lie in how much money we make or how fast we climb the corporate ladder. The value is in our preparation for life and all the obstacles that we have to overcome.
We will be faced with career changes, technology shifts, economic turmoil, health and family decisions and more throughout our lives. None of these are predictable and the path each of us face is different and our own. Unlike repairing a leaky faucet or baking cake, there’s not a single recipe for life that we can follow. We have to write our own cookbook at the very least. Some of us will face challenges that are the equivalent of building our own printing press and making the paper and ink on which to print our cookbook.
I’ve often said that the most important thing I learned at Utica College was how to think. During those three and half years I was able to calm my mind and exercise it in a way that I’d never done before. I interacted with others who had very different and, at the time, frightening ideas. I learned how to evaluate and test existing ideas and how to create new ones of my own. Sure, I received a B.S. degree, but I value my thinking ability infinitely more.
Over the years, I’ve been able to use that vast toolkit to build a life. I’ve zigged and zagged through multiple industries, different types of jobs, and had some very good and very bad ideas. I’ve been extremely fortunate, financially and personally, because of the cognitive abilities I took the time to hone at UC.
I’m not saying that higher education doesn’t have challenges in terms of cost containment and always trying to do better in the toolkits we provide to our students. We must strive every day to get better and insist on openness and accountability. But, most of all, we should remember and hold our institutions of higher education accountable for preparing our students to be lifelong learners and leaders.
The value of a college degree is that, undertaken properly, it prepares us for life. As we discuss the value of a college education, let’s make sure we look at the entirety of the college experience and not just use a balance sheet mentality.
5/15/13 Update: In the original post I neglected to thank Dr. Todd Hutton and Kim Lambert of Utica College who brought my attention to the Chronicle pieces referenced above and inspired this piece.
Full disclosure: I am a trustee of Utica College and naturally biased in favor of higher education