Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Relative Value of a College Education

Richard Cohen reacts to his perception that people today are too concerned with the economics of college, and shares his perception of the college education he received back in the 1960's,
I apply my own set of metrics to my college education. I met some wonderful people, particularly fellow students who were so much more sophisticated and worldly than I was. I had some great teachers, one of whom became a mentor and taught me how to suffer criticism. (I’m still suffering.) Whole worlds opened up to me — philosophy, which I never would have read had I not been forced to; the clotted verses of Chaucer; and, of course, the aforementioned anthropology, both cultural and physical. The latter had me going from desk to desk. Upon each was placed a human skull. I had to determine the sex, the race and the age.

I went five for five. This is not the kind of thing you’re likely to do on the job. I came of age when jobs were plentiful and college not exorbitantly expensive. I graduated with debt, but it was manageable, and I set off to do something I loved — journalism. I had tried my hand at it in college. I know things have changed and I do not dismiss today’s economic conditions. But I tell you this — college made me a happier person. I don’t know what that’s worth in dollars, but I know what it is worth to me: everything.
Whatever his intention, I do think that Cohen fails to give sufficient weight to today's economic conditions. Tuition costs have soared since the 1960's, and pursuing a graduate degree in journalism at an elite university is the sort of pursuit of a dream that is likely to leave you underemployed and struggling to pay off your student loans. Cohen writes that his decision to go to college wasn't about money, but it didn't need to be. But a few decades earlier the type of college experience Cohen describes was a luxury few could afford, and a few decades later it is again increasingly becoming a luxury. Cohen states that he might have become an insurance salesman had he not gone to college, and might have become more wealthy by virtue of that choice. He also could have returned to the insurance industry after college had his journalism career not panned out, as his debt load did not define his choices.

I recognize and value the four year college experience, the opportunity (if you choose to take it) to learn subjects to which you might not otherwise be exposed, to have your ideas challenged and tested, to learn a subject in depth. But the shift toward "But will my degree help me get a job that pays a decent wage," or "Might I not be a lot better off if I instead learn a trade, find work that does not require a degree, or find some other path toward a career," are not manifestations of a shallow rejection of those values in favor of economics. They're a reflection of the reality that it's not much fun to spend a large amount of money (not to mention opportunity costs) to get a degree that might not only be insufficient to help you get a job, but could also leave you with a huge amount of non-dischargeable debt yet without the means to pay it off.

If you want to help today's college students and you value the four year college experience, rather than suggesting that students are somehow wrong or shallow to consider the economics of a degree program, it would be helpful to instead focus on how we can improve the economics of college -- how we can shift the cost-benefit analysis back to where it was when Cohen was able to attend college on the cheap with a wide range of job opportunities upon graduation. If we find that we cannot move the economics of college back in that direction, while we can continue to value the four-year college degree, we should also recognize that we're talking about a luxury that fewer and fewer people will be able to enjoy.

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