Getting value from a college education


What is the value of a university education in a world where we have free and comprehensive access to more knowledge than anyone could consume in a lifetime? Is it still worth it to go to college with no particular plan other than a general interest in a particular field of study?  I’d say no.

College has the potential for intellectually challenging students in a way that they miss out on if they don’t attend.  Few 18-year-olds have the discipline and motivation to seek out that challenge on their own.  It’s also wonderful to spend hours every day talking to (or listening to) smart people, to acquire a bit of sophistication and polish with which to go out and dazzle the world.  But when parents are struggling to pay mortgages, the prospect of taking on a 6-figure education loan focuses the mind on more practical matters.  For example, will this degree in comparative Eastern religions allow my child to find a decent job and support herself without resorting to waiting tables? Will it prepare her for the real world?

I’d say that in the vast majority of cases, no degree program can reasonably promise that.  It’s now up to the students themselves to ensure that their college experience is relevant in the real world.  They need to be skeptical, active consumers of higher education, questioning professors, looking for their own answers, and demanding to see the connection to life after graduation.  In most academic (as opposed to vocational) colleges, I suspect the idea of giving students tools that they can directly apply to a job is met with genteel horror.  Therefore, students must take it on themselves to establish the connection between the knowledge they acquire in the classroom and some purpose in the real world.  If the connection is weak, then that may be a sign to choose a different course.

This is not to say a student should completely avoid courses that provide lots of fun intellectual challenge with no practical application outside academia. But unless that student is independently wealthy, they would do well to think long and hard about the wisdom of a degree that doesn’t provide a foundation of skills that can be useful in a job.

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