June 8, 2011

What’s the value of higher education?

by Heather Falconer

There have been a number of articles recently discussing the “value” of a college education (such as this one in the New Yorker) . In other words, given the cost in time and money, is it a good investment to make? Traditional wisdom, with research to support it, is that people with college degrees earn significantly more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma, so that even discounting the intangible benefits of higher education, it’s still a good investment. So what is driving these new discussions?

The first is that many recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs in the current job market. The unemployment rate in the 20-24 year old age group is 15%, nearly 6% higher than the overall population. Even those with college degrees are struggling, and it’s as bad as it’s been since 1970.

The second is that the cost of a traditional four-year private University is now around $50k a year (tuition + lodging). Nearly a quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money, especially with the prospect of no job or a low paying job waiting for you when you graduate. With more students graduating with heavy debt burdens, the need to find a job is even more pressing.

The third is the rapid change in skillsets in demand in the workforce. In the technology world for example, four years is a very long time and skills that might have seemed important then are far less relevant now. Consider that the iPhone was introduced just four years ago, and the app store three years ago. Are colleges properly preparing students for the jobs that are actually out there? Do they adjust fast enough to stay relevant?

Finally, there is a large amount of education material available online now, from Visionlearning to OpenCourseWare and Kahn Academy. Why spend money living in an expensive area and taking classes from well paid professors when can you do it all online for free or cheap?

These are interesting discussions to have, but I feel it’s important to remember one thing: higher education isn’t so much about the actual content that you cover but about how you go about learning it. By physically placing students together in groups (e.g. a class) and working on difficult problems over the course of a semester, they learn skills that are useful in just about any job. The real value of the education is not in the course material but in the process of attainment.

It still would be nice to find a job though, wouldn’t it?

Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.