Value of Higher Education

What is the value of higher education?

antipas2A century or so ago, getting the equivalent of a high school education was nice but not absolutely necessary.  You simply didn’t need such an education for your average manual labor or factory job.  Today high school is pretty necessary and college education has taken its place as nice but not absolutely necessary.  Some feel like college is going the same direction to become more and more necessary.  Maybe it’s profit-motivated: schools make more money by having more students, so convincing people that they need college is good for business.

Are they right?  Mike Rowe has been a big proponent of the idea that people need to “work smart and hard,” not simply pursuing higher education for its own sake but thinking about what kind of education various careers require.  There are tons of great jobs out there that require technical school, rather than college.  There are many college grads who are only qualified for one career, and if they ever change their mind or get downsized, they’ll be in a really tough spot.  I agree with him that college isn’t for everyone.  In some cases, going to college may even damage your life by leaving you unskilled and in debt.

I’d like to look deeper at this question, however, get to the “heart of the matter” if you will.  Let’s separate the idea of higher education from formal schooling.  I have a college degree and a post-graduate degree.  Those are elements of higher education, but my education did not end when I hung them on the wall.  I’m a big proponent of lifelong learning.  Further, the world is changing, and rapidly.  Many fields are so complicated already that they can’t be understood without intense training.  Even what goes on under the hood of a car is highly computerized.  You need “higher education” to be qualified in these fields, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you need more degrees.  You need to learn from others and be a disciplined lifelong learner.  It’s a valuable informal higher education just to never stop learning and improving yourself.

I’d also like to consider higher education as that which does not simply emphasize learning knowledge.  Knowledge is essential, but critical reasoning, problem solving, character, and leadership are just as important – in any field.  Whatever level of education is able to impart such things, that education will be valuable.

Finally, broad-based education is also important in many fields.  I believe that many trades are becoming more intertwined with other unrelated things, such as my earlier example of engine mechanics and computer science.  More and more workers in the 21st century and beyond will need at least basic skills in a wide variety of fields to be successful.  To be innovative and groundbreaking, I believe that proficiency in varying fields will be essential.  Tomorrow’s discoveries will come from the intersections of previously-unconnected concepts, mixed with healthy doses of critical reasoning and problem solving.  In this way, “higher education” that provides a broader base of proficiency to go along with an area of specialization will become more and more valuable for all people.

 – Antipas

Response from Aurelius

Great post. We took this one in different directions, which is great because otherwise this blog would be painfully redundant.

I like your point that college is becoming more and more necessary just like the high school education of the past. A broad education gives you valuable breadth to many ideas but makes you less employable due to your lack of specialization, while a specialization can be harmful if your skill is not in demand. Studying electrical engineering, my professors encouraged us all to at least get an MS because the BS was no longer specialized enough for many jobs.

You also raise a good point that higher education is much more than knowledge, even beyond critical thinking as I mentioned in my post. Character and leadership are vital. My previous manager, prepping me to be a manager, told me to focus on leadership, not management. It’s a bit cliché nowadays, but the point is important. Knowledge and critical thinking will not advance society or the individual without strong character and the ability to lead.

You’re absolutely right that innovation will come, and often does come, through the intersection of seemingly unconnected fields. I forget the details, but I think it was Hughes Aircraft Company in the mid 20th century that started putting two people from different functions in the same office. This encouraged cross-functional collaboration, fostering innovation to give them a competitive edge. Major advances occur when people question the fundamentals from new perspectives, which is aided by a higher education strong in both breadth and depth.

aureliusEven though I suggested this prompt, the question is a bit silly. Of course higher education is valuable. It benefits the individual in many ways and even society at large. So, let’s discuss just how valuable higher education is.

In general, the value of higher education is more than what it costs.

Education enriches the mind, allowing the student to see everything in a more revealing, critical light. Ignorance is not bliss. It is darkness of the mind.

Today’s required education ends near the age of 18 and includes an introductory understanding of the world as we know it. While students can choose to enroll in advanced courses, they do not have a specialty or finely tuned critical thinking skills. Critical thinking is the true value of a higher education to the individual, while obtaining a specialty increases employability, unless perhaps you majored in philosophy. An unfortunate friend of mine worked at a liquor store with a PhD in philosophy, but his mind was rich I suppose. Critical thinking, however, is sometimes incorrectly placed aside in order to promote barely-mind-stretching workforce skills. UT Austin’s president from 1979-1985 and 1997-1998, Peter Flawn, recently said, “There seems to be a political move, and it’s not just in Texas, away from the classical mission of the university – cultivation of the mind and pursuit of knowledge – to a concept of a public university as sort of a job corps or a trade school.”

The only debatable aspect of this discussion is the monetary value of higher education. My son will be 18 in 2032, and I’ve projected the total cost of an in-state 4-year public education, including room and board, to be about $250,000 that year. That’s absurd. The current cost of just under $100,000 is drastically outpacing inflation, so while the cost is worth it today, it will not be in the near future without a major disruption. I personally believe this disruption will take the form of highly ranked online degrees beginning to dominate and drive down the cost through increased competition.

This response would not be complete without mentioning the societal benefits of an educated individual and an educated public. John Green feels very passionately about public education, and I feel similarly about a college education. It is in society’s best interest to educate its public. Education leads to technological advancements, a more active populace, and a stronger economy. College graduates have a voting rate 1.7 times that of high school graduates in the young to middle age adult range. College graduates also pay more in taxes, have better health, are incarcerated less, and rely less on government social programs. As John Green put it, “It is useful to have an educated population… I don’t like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.”


Response from Antipas

Great thoughts, my friend.  Again we have taken this prompt in some different ways, but again I find very little to disagree with you on here.  Your final paragraph is very telling – there are huge benefits to both the individual and society to have a highly-education population.  It was like playing SimCity years ago and investing in schools, colleges, libraries and museums.  There’s a societal cost to building and maintaining such structures, but the benefits far outweigh them.

My only question would be to push against your basic premise just a bit.  I’ll agree with you that the point of higher education is to enrich the mind, but is that valuable for all people?  Of course we would love to have a highly-educated population, but are we engaging in just an upper-middle class debate while ignoring the way that a poor family might face this topic?

From the perspective of a lower-income family, there might not be much value in enriching the mind.  Can the family business be carried on with a high school diploma?  Probably!  Our society needs these simply family businesses and there is no shame in simple lives with straightforward work.  Those of us who are constantly called upon for deep thinking at work may even sometimes envy the simple work that you leave at 5pm.  So higher education is valuable, yes, but is it something we should encourage for all people?


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