Today’s post is by Michael Broady, our Special Issue Editorial Contributor. The topic is, well, topical, as millions of young people just graduated from college and are preparing to figure out how to enter the work force in the next few weeks. And, maybe asking themselves whether all of that was worth it.
This week, I listened to another sound bite for an upcoming dialogue on NPR about college; the interviewee intended to argue that college shouldn’t be the go to choice for high school grads. The idea that college may be a counterproductive life choice is nothing new. I’ve listened to the reasons why it’s a waste for probably the past 5 years – four of which I spent earning my B.A., and I’m unimpressed.
First off, I recognize the financial burden of college. Last year college loan debt averaged $25,000 per student. No doubt, that number will be higher this year. In no way am I supporting the steady increase in tuition at both private and public universities. That higher education is unaffordable for the majority of us is absurd, not because it’s worthless, but because it is so valuable.
From a purely financial perspective, David Leonhardt’s article in the NY Times last year shows that college graduates make close to 40% more money than high school graduates – even in job fields that don’t require high school degrees. Another study shows that investing in a college degree is equivalent to making an investment with returns of 15.2% per year. That number is far higher than average earnings in stock market investments or investments in corporate or government bonds.
Arguments against a college education aren’t purely financial though. There’s been a tonal shift in the discussions and I don’t like what I’m hearing. It seems that the college degree itself is being undervalued, that it has come to generally represent things stuffy and outdated. When I told a friend I’d be writing on the topic, she pointed me to an article about start-ups building sites where you can go to college for…free-ninety-nine!
The creator of Udemy lays it out for us, in case we’re confused: “It’s cool to be a drop out these days,” Bali says. “It’s the dying companies that value college degrees. You have to think beyond that piece of paper.” The same article also points to another site, Udacity, with the same goal – to give people access to courses and the power to take their education into their own hands.
This post isn’t a thorough review of the above-mentioned sites, but I did check them out. The latter’s classes are actually free to a certain point and the classes look like they could be really useful, if you’re interested in building a website or cryptology. The former is a bit more of a free-for-all with some classes costing more than $130 and others free. One course discusses energy and the environment; another course tells you how to promote your own Udemy class to grow a student base – to increase sales. Even if these sites are geared more towards photoshop and wordpress tutorials, I’m a fan. I’ll probably even take a class.
Interesting as these courses are, ultimately, they strike me as supplementary to a college education, not because the info isn’t all there – I’m sure “Fundamentals of Physics” taught by Yale University’s Ramamurti Shankar covers everything a 200 level class should. For that matter a library should have all of the physics you could want too. The courses are supplementary because neither the textbook nor the free online class provide office hours with your teacher/T.A., or help you to build study groups, or encourage you to study loosely related topics based on a personal assessment of your likes/dislikes and natural aptitudes.
Mainly (and this is a constant but valuable response to the old do it yourself education) college is about learning to think, to process the world through selective filters, to draw connections and value the steps toward discovery more than it is about any specific equation or class.
Sure, plenty of people find success without college and some grads become bums. Negative reactions to big corporations and institutions are absolutely called for and necessary; that doesn’t make dropping out of college a practical option, and I’m not a fan of loose language that devalues the kind of education college provides alongside the broken system that allows for such hyper-inflated costs to that education.
Propagating that message seems like a solid step towards lots of very well made wordpress sites with very little worthwhile content.