The Value of Higher Education

So my other passion beyond theology, if you don’t know (and even if you do), is higher education. More specifically, higher education in the Western liberal arts tradition. There has been a lot of talk, on the news, in trade journals, and in blogs or on social media, recently about whether it is “worth it” to go to college–even the past two US presidents have been getting in on the action. I would argue that, in defiance of the claims and arguments about education and its value, there is a worth the liberal arts education completely excluded from the conversation; and this, while not a quantifiable worth, is nevertheless one of the most important aspects of a democratic society.

Frequently, the conversation is phrased in terms of ROI, or return on investment. That is, education is reduced to a mere utilitarian concept and is guaged useful if it leads to a greater level of material income, less lost costs of work, than if you went into work directly after high school. Most of these analyses show that, on a pure economics level, yes, the college degree is worth it. That is, if you factor in income lost over a 4 or 5 year period in a job without a college degree, and compare it to the increase in income from getting such a degree, and balancing this out with experience and promotions/raises associated with both scenarios, the college degree comes out on top. However, it is quickly noted that in general, especially if one takes 5 years to complete a degree and even moreso if you pick the wrong field, the ROI is not very high, and occasionally negative. In other words, college may only be “worth it” if you pick a utilitarian degree, if you graduate in 4 years, and if you take the highest paying job, ignoring all other factors. Also, usually included in these analyses, is the point that college tuition is going up, and soon it will not be worth it to go to college.

That’s all well and good, but I find myself looking at these studies and seeing a fundamental flaw in them. The assumption is that the only value in a degree, or a liberal arts education, is in what type of earnings it can potentially provide (and in the current economy, including future projections of it, that is not guaranteed). Here’s the problem: that’s not the only value higher education has. Such an analysis assumes that the college education is only a professional qualification; it claims that all education is vocational training. Implicit is the assumption that anything beyond vocational training is either a) easily done alone, or, more alarmingly, b) should only be undertaken by the elites of society. I would suggest that both assumptions are false.

The assumption by the first claim is that one does not need anyone else to learn. It implies an idealistic picture of a lone individual sitting in a room reading book upon book. While that may make for interesting movies, like “Good Will Hunting,” or compelling historical narratives, such as Bill Gates, such individuals are the exception, not the rule. Most learning requires a broader community and, along with that, an individual materially connected to that community who guides and leads it, giving it structure and substance. We learn from each other, and we learn best when we have a guide who is invested in our education on a personal level. In short, the best learning happens face to face, not through a book or on a video screen. Even though I value reading widely and rigorously, unless there is someone to guide us as to what we should read or watch, anything goes. “Zeitgeist” is an incredibly popular youtube video, but it is factually inaccurate throughout. Holy Blood, Holy Grail may be a bestseller on religion and Christianity with a compelling story, but it hardly qualifies as quality research. We need a guide, and we need a larger community to help us. As the biblical book of Proverbs says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” We learn from each other in dialogue, in disagreement, and through mutual struggle.

The second assumption, that learning beyond credentials is reserved for the societal elite, undermines the very nature of a democratic society or of a republic. Education should not be for the elite only, but for everyone. Soceities function best when all participants are educated as best as they can be. Only then can meaningful dialogue about the future direction of a country, or city, or state, occur. Only then can we actually discuss the merits and failings of various proposals without descending into angry animals barking at each other. Education, and in particular higher liberal arts education, encourages to see past empty rhetoric, to view the heart of an idea and evaluate its substance, and to see the point of view of those with whom we disagree. Only those who seek control and power over the masses would knowingly discourage such a practice or undervalue such education. The conversation in America should not be about the value of education, but about increasing access to it. And the increase in access should not focus on MOOCs, or the cheapest, or most cost efficient way to do so. Aside from the studies showing many of these forms fail when it comes to student success (MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses, tend to show only 2-5% of students who actually learn the material or could pass with a “C”), such talk inherently encourages a two-tier system in education, with the elites (read: richest) getting direct interaction, and everyone else watching videos and left to struggle on their own. In other words, those least equipped to teach themselves would be those most likely to be required to do so.

Of course, both of these points I’ve made assume something about education. Namely: it is inherently valuable. To phrase discussion about education purely in terms of ROI is to miss the point completely. Let me argue by way of analogy. What is the value of having and/or raising a child? Unless you work on a farm in the middle ages, this has a terrible ROI. Yet most of us do not question that such a thing is valuable. Even if we do question it, the arguments tend to focus on more than return on investment. Or how about this: what is the value of voting? of giving to charity? of going to church? of reading beyond what is required for a job? of simply sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee/tea? These all have terrible ROI because you have lost opportunity costs (at the least, sometimes material losses as in donating to charity), and very little prospect of them producing anything to materially compensate them. Yet, are they valuable?

“Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, gain understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

  3 comments for “The Value of Higher Education

  1. November 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    My college was recently on a list of worst colleges to attend, figured by cost and expected salaries for alumni. But I wouldn’t regret a single semester I spent there.

  2. November 25, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Hmmm. Is anyone actually in disagreement with this point of view? I think most everyone would agree with the intrinsic value of education. However, the debate is more along the lines of how one pays for this education and, how much much one pays. There are real concerns with the increasing cost of education. College education costs, outside of some state schools, perhaps, have grown at a pace that far exceeds growth in other industries. Layer upon layer of additional administrators, building programs that grow ever more lavish, and a popular assumption that everyone must have a college degree to find fulfillment have resulted in a distorted marketplace for education. It is this cost inflation that creates a negative reaction in many people. Dare I say it, education is the next target of populist reformers after healthcare. I expect it to have similar results to the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, but progressives always believe a distorted system must be fixed and, since they can’t trust the marketplace to correct itself, they will meddle with the education system, further distorting it without ever realizing that it was their so-called egalitarian efforts that caused the original distortions. It would be funny if it weren’t so predictably sad.

    • November 26, 2013 at 10:59 am

      Unfortunately the narrative has shifted almost entirely to Return on Investment, or ROI. The value of postsecondary education (and recently even some upper level secondary education) is no longer taken as a given, but only so far as it yields a utilitarian output: increased wages. This lies behind both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s stance toward higher education. They both have focused on vocational training, not liberal arts, and tend to discourage fields without high income potential. For instance: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields. There is no shortage of qualified candidates for STEM fields, yet these fields tend to pay more, and so there is a push to get students into STEM fields. The net result: a lot of individuals with highly specialized STEM degrees (since liberal arts is a no go) who are unable to find employment in their sector. Because of specialization they cannot easily transfer to other fields and left with stagnant wages. To be sure, some do alright, but these are only anecdotes and the overall issue is that most graduating in the past decade do not find higher paying jobs.

      The rise in tuition costs is for a variety of reasons. To be sure, some of these issues are related to administrative bloat and fancy/unnecessary student amenities (rock climbing wall?). However, that is a relatively minor source of the problem. Tenure is not an issue anymore because it generally costs nothing, and those with tenure, somewhat counterintuitively, tend to be more productive on the whole (again anecdotes aside) than they were prior to tenure. Couple that with the fact that somewhere between 60-70% of college courses are now taught by adjunct faculty (that is faculty who are, in theory, part time, but in practice are trying to get full time jobs while working the equivalent of 60 hours for near (once non -teaching time is factored in) minimum wage or just above it), and it becomes clear tenure is also note the issue. The issue has to do with perceived cost and external funding changes.

      Since the 1980s, to be sure, cost of tuition for families (the “sticker price”) has outpaced inflation, often at 1.7-1.9 times more than inflation. However, when it barely kept pace in the 50s, and 60s, and actually declined relative to inflation in the 40s and 70s, the picture is more complex, with education not being that much more expensive (I’ll get to why it’s expensive in a minute). Also, while in many areas such as manufacturing, farming, retail, grocery, etc., technology has increased productivity relative to cost, the same cannot be said of education (neither can it be said of similar “service industries” if we want to put it that way. Like medicine, dentistry, law, security, etc.). Additionally, since the 1970s wages have only just kept pace with inflation for the top 40% of Americans (mostly those with degrees), and only outpaced inflation (i.e. “real economic growth”) for the top 2-5% of earners. That is, while economic growth in the US has been, on the whole, an upward trend, in actual concentration it has been almost entirely among the most wealthy of individuals (since the late 1970s). That means, for most families, the *perceived* cost of education has increased substantially more.

      Finally the actual sticker price has increased substantially. However, rather than point to the cost of education (for institutions) this is more likely to do with state funding to organizations. When private institutions are compared with the rate of inflation they have, somewhat surprisingly, been slightly under the rate of inflation in their tuition increases until the recent recession, which is likely due to a loss of donor funding. Public institutions have seen the most dramatic rises in tuition costs. This is because states, that used to be the primary funding for these schools, have stopped directing funds there.

      In 1975, states gave over $10 per $1000 of per capita state income. Today, that number has *declined* to roughly $6, despite the fact that enrollment has *increased*. The result: states shifted from paying 60% of public institutions budgets to now paying almost half of that rate. This is the biggest source of increasing tuition. There are other factors, but the lack of funding and lack of interest in providing it are the major factors.

      The following article gives a helpful discussion of this from a non-partisan standpoint, and I used it to inform bits of my comment here:

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