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The Value of Higher Education

So my other passion beyond theology, if you don’t know (and even if you do), is higher education. More specifically, higher education in the Western liberal arts tradition. There has been a lot of talk, on the news, in trade journals, and in blogs or on social media, recently about whether it is “worth it” to go to college–even the past two US presidents have been getting in on the action. I would argue that, in defiance of the claims and arguments about education and its value, there is a worth the liberal arts education completely excluded from the conversation; and this, while not a quantifiable worth, is nevertheless one of the most important aspects of a democratic society.

Frequently, the conversation is phrased in terms of ROI, or return on investment. That is, education is reduced to a mere utilitarian concept and is guaged useful if it leads to a greater level of material income, less lost costs of work, than if you went into work directly after high school. Most of these analyses show that, on a pure economics level, yes, the college degree is worth it. That is, if you factor in income lost over a 4 or 5 year period in a job without a college degree, and compare it to the increase in income from getting such a degree, and balancing this out with experience and promotions/raises associated with both scenarios, the college degree comes out on top. However, it is quickly noted that in general, especially if one takes 5 years to complete a degree and even moreso if you pick the wrong field, the ROI is not very high, and occasionally negative. In other words, college may only be “worth it” if you pick a utilitarian degree, if you graduate in 4 years, and if you take the highest paying job, ignoring all other factors. Also, usually included in these analyses, is the point that college tuition is going up, and soon it will not be worth it to go to college.

That’s all well and good, but I find myself looking at these studies and seeing a fundamental flaw in them. The assumption is that the only value in a degree, or a liberal arts education, is in what type of earnings it can potentially provide (and in the current economy, including future projections of it, that is not guaranteed). Here’s the problem: that’s not the only value higher education has. Such an analysis assumes that the college education is only a professional qualification; it claims that all education is vocational training. Implicit is the assumption that anything beyond vocational training is either a) easily done alone, or, more alarmingly, b) should only be undertaken by the elites of society. I would suggest that both assumptions are false.

The assumption by the first claim is that one does not need anyone else to learn. It implies an idealistic picture of a lone individual sitting in a room reading book upon book. While that may make for interesting movies, like “Good Will Hunting,” or compelling historical narratives, such as Bill Gates, such individuals are the exception, not the rule. Most learning requires a broader community and, along with that, an individual materially connected to that community who guides and leads it, giving it structure and substance. We learn from each other, and we learn best when we have a guide who is invested in our education on a personal level. In short, the best learning happens face to face, not through a book or on a video screen. Even though I value reading widely and rigorously, unless there is someone to guide us as to what we should read or watch, anything goes. “Zeitgeist” is an incredibly popular youtube video, but it is factually inaccurate throughout. Holy Blood, Holy Grail may be a bestseller on religion and Christianity with a compelling story, but it hardly qualifies as quality research. We need a guide, and we need a larger community to help us. As the biblical book of Proverbs says “As iron sharpens iron, so one person does another.” We learn from each other in dialogue, in disagreement, and through mutual struggle.

The second assumption, that learning beyond credentials is reserved for the societal elite, undermines the very nature of a democratic society or of a republic. Education should not be for the elite only, but for everyone. Soceities function best when all participants are educated as best as they can be. Only then can meaningful dialogue about the future direction of a country, or city, or state, occur. Only then can we actually discuss the merits and failings of various proposals without descending into angry animals barking at each other. Education, and in particular higher liberal arts education, encourages to see past empty rhetoric, to view the heart of an idea and evaluate its substance, and to see the point of view of those with whom we disagree. Only those who seek control and power over the masses would knowingly discourage such a practice or undervalue such education. The conversation in America should not be about the value of education, but about increasing access to it. And the increase in access should not focus on MOOCs, or the cheapest, or most cost efficient way to do so. Aside from the studies showing many of these forms fail when it comes to student success (MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses, tend to show only 2-5% of students who actually learn the material or could pass with a “C”), such talk inherently encourages a two-tier system in education, with the elites (read: richest) getting direct interaction, and everyone else watching videos and left to struggle on their own. In other words, those least equipped to teach themselves would be those most likely to be required to do so.

Of course, both of these points I’ve made assume something about education. Namely: it is inherently valuable. To phrase discussion about education purely in terms of ROI is to miss the point completely. Let me argue by way of analogy. What is the value of having and/or raising a child? Unless you work on a farm in the middle ages, this has a terrible ROI. Yet most of us do not question that such a thing is valuable. Even if we do question it, the arguments tend to focus on more than return on investment. Or how about this: what is the value of voting? of giving to charity? of going to church? of reading beyond what is required for a job? of simply sitting and enjoying a cup of coffee/tea? These all have terrible ROI because you have lost opportunity costs (at the least, sometimes material losses as in donating to charity), and very little prospect of them producing anything to materially compensate them. Yet, are they valuable?

“Get wisdom. Though it cost you all you have, gain understanding.” (Proverbs 4:7)

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