Higher Education

the ROI on a college education

Here's yet another article suggesting reasons for not attending college. In this case, it's essentially a series of financial calculations demonstrating better ways of spending your money. And maybe it makes sense in those terms. It's followed by a slew of comments on all sides of the issue but with many people telling their stories of how what they learned in college didn't prepare them for the "real world."

My advice on the matter? If you don't want to go to college to learn, then please don't come. If you're coming to college because you think the piece of paper you're "purchasing" is going to improve your standard of living, don't enroll. Maybe you will make more money. Maybe you won't. But don't treat college like it's your investment portfolio. You won't be happy with the results.

Culturally we need to make a decision. Is college a mechanism for social equality or is it a form of meritocracy?

K-12 seeks to be a social equalizer, right? We aim for 100% graduation, though we don't get it. As a result, a HS diploma has little/no market value. There's no absolute reason why corporations couldn't just starting hiring entry level workers right out of high school, like they did in the fictional old days when folks worked their way up from the mail room. Of course, socially we don't need 18 year olds entering the job market. More importantly, I think that most employers would be dissatisfied with the work their young employees would do. College grads may not think they're learning anything in college, but I see time and again how young people mature in college to become more responsible, confident, articulate, serious, etc. Maybe some corporation will want to pay them while their going through that process. Maybe it will happen if they live at home and work at the mall. Maybe.

Or maybe not.

Over the last 40 years college has lurched toward becoming a social equalizer with open admissions, expanding community colleges, and so on. However we also think about college as a meritocracy (though it is far from a perfect one) where the best students go to elite colleges. If higher ed was a meritocracy (however flawed) then it would make sense that only the best students would succeed, that they would be uncommon, prized individuals, and that they might demand higher salaries. Of course we have this fantasy in America where even though we recognize that some people are prettier and some are better athletes (and thus deserving of more money), that we all are equally smart, equally capable of equal academic success. This is incompatible with the notion of college as meritocratic in any significant way (which is maybe a good thing), but it certainly means as a result that one can't expect to be rewarded in a substantial way for getting a degree. Then when college costs skyrocket we get the situation we are in.

But our real problem is not whether college should be an equalizer or meritocratic. The real problem is that we mistake college as an individual good (for personal gain) rather than a social good (where educating some benefits us all).

If we send people to college to become teachers, engineers, scientists, researchers, scholars, lawyers, doctors, civic leaders, and such, we hope that people are not following these career paths in search of profit. We hope they are in search of knowledge, justice, and a better society for all of us. We hope that some of the best and brightest people in the world will follow such paths. My math genius 11 year old daughter wants to be an astrophysicist. What a terrible monetary investment. Maybe she should be an accountant or I should give her whatever money I have saved for her college education and tell her to user her mathematical-analytical skills to become a day trader on the stock market.

Or maybe I should send her to college and if she does end up becoming a physicist, maybe she will contribute some valuable knowledge about the universe to our society.

But if your kid isn't interested in learning, isn't interested in entering a profession with some ethical obligation to better our society, then please feel free to use whatever college savings you have to open a frozen yogurt franchise or a car wash or whatever it is you think you're capable of doing. And I really, honestly wish you all the best of luck with that. I hope you reach your SUV, hot tub, Disney vacation, home theater suburban fantasy.

Meanwhile, I hope my kids and others like them go to college, become scientists, and help to develop some clean renewable energy source that will allow you to heat your hot tub with something other than your own flatulence.