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The Need for a College Education

I notice that education has come under attack again.  For examples, a Washington Post article challenges the value of a college education, and the Town Hall website suggests that many people should start a business rather than go to collegeIt's become a trendy thing, challenging the value of a college education.  It's also a very risky thing, and many of the challenges are intellectually dishonest.


According to the Small Business Administration, about half of all new businesses fail within 5 years.  But the University of Buffalo released a study showing the failure rate to be much higher rate, at 80% failure within five years.  It's difficult to track precisely, but the general message should be clear that simply starting a business does not mean it will survive, let alone become successful.   And it's not hard to figure that while some business owners are unfortunate, failure to study, plan and work hard will contribute to failure.  In other words, if someone is a poor student, they would probably be a poor business owner as well.  The people attacking schools for failures miss the fact that intelligence, diligence and inspiration are uncommon traits, and it's not the schools' fault if someone does not do their work.  They get worked up about the cost, but really , from a historic perspective it has always been expensive and difficult to get a really good education, and if someone really does their homework, so to speak, they can get their credentials for a lot less than some other people.  But the main reason the challenges fail, is because the challengers do not understand the basic purpose and function of collegiate education in the first place.


My dad grew up in the Depression.  His first job was a factory shift when he was 8 years old.  The child labor laws were not of much concern to folks in those days, nor were safety or compensation standards.  He came to believe that the key to getting a better life was to get a solid education, so he earned a Bachelor's in Chemical Engineering and a Masters in Mathematics.  He also took some business courses at Wharton.  My father made it clear to all of his children, that he expected us to do as well as possible in school.  My mom earned a Bachelor's in Sociology, and four degrees were earned by the four children, in six majors.  My brother did not earn a degree, my sister and I earned a Bachelor's degree in Literature and I later earned my MBA, and my other sister triple-majored in Chemistry, Physics, and Business for her Bachelor's.  Between my parents and us kids, we earned seven degrees plus certifications in nine majors at seven different universities.  I believe I can claim we represent broad experience in education. 


Besides the practical value my dad felt that advanced education represents, my father also felt that education was mental exercise, a vital need to seek intellectual growth just the same as we should use nutrition and physical exercise to develop our bodies, and join religious and ethical organizations to grow as moral individuals.  Long before continuing education became commonplace, my dad believed and taught that a person should never consider their education complete or finished.   I mention this because my values largely follow the same line of opinion.  I also think that these additional points need to be included in the discussion.


Let's start, then, but addressing the biggest real problem in the college decision - most young students are not able to make a good decision about college on their own.  We live in a world where people get into routines and tend to do what they believe is expected from them.  So a lot of kids know by the end of high school whether they are going to college, not because they have thought out the decision with the care it should be given, but because they know what is expected.  The decision will only be about cost, opportunity, difficulty, or value to a very small degree; it will generally be about what the person's family and friends say and do about the matter.  As a result, if you are friends or family with someone going into their last couple years of high school, or if they talk about deciding on going to college, speak up and let them know what you think. 


The next thing to consider is the career path you want to follow.  The people criticizing college seem to imagine that only college students have hard choices.  But for good or ill, life in general is hard and a lot of young people have no real idea what they are getting into when they choose their lifestyle.  Media is not helpful; the celebrities and glamorous people we see in movies and television, look, they are just not normal folks.  In fact, even the stars and athletes often warn folks that the image does not match even their own reality.  Most new businesses fail, as I said earlier, so the idea that kids coming out of high school should plan on being the next instant millionaire is pretty close to being complete fiction.  And working for a living straight out of high school with no special training or advance education, is a ticket straight to hard times and a poor future.  When you get right down to it, what everyone needs to do is reach a place where they understand the three circles of their career horizon; what you are able to do, what you want to do, and what someone is willing to pay you to do.   That's it, simple but hard to work out.  And answering those questions takes the ability called critical thinking, which is not often taught anywhere these days.  I'm not saying you get perfect results from talking things out with your family and friends, or from trying to figure out what you want to be in 20 years, but you'll definitely get a better sense of which path is better for your situation right now.


The decision about education also can be seen as a window of opportunity.  Back when I graduated high school, there was really only one way to go to a decent school; full-time at a school and on-campus, living in the dorm and basically immersing yourself totally in the school's culture.  And in those days, almost everyone at college started right after high school; the older students were generally military veterans or professionals seeking advanced degrees and certification.  Alternatives to traditional colleges existed, but these were generally night schools and were commonly regarded as inferior educational opportunities.  Today, the demographic is much broader as is the window of opportunity.  In addition to full and part-time campuses, there are online courses, commuter campuses, and a number of flexible options.  Accreditation insures the quality of education provided, and the smart individual can check out a school on virtually any desired criteria prior to submitting an application.  Cost, regimen, focus and degree criteria can all be determined and compared, and should be weighed in balance to the student's need.  The days of one-size-fits-all are long gone, and it is well that they should be.


The critics of modern education blame the schools, which is sometimes deserved, and a culture which demands a degree for most professional positions, or to advance in a company.  What these critics fail to consider, is that the student has the right and responsibility to choose their path, that there is good historical reason for believing that higher education produces, generally, superior employees, and the critics completely fail to grasp that non-collegiate careers are generally limited, low-paying, and, well, dismal.  This is another reason why anyone deciding about college should talk carefully with their family and friends - the consequences of the decision are literally life-changing, and you should not make a decision that important on the advice of strangers.


A college degree does not guarantee a person is competent, nor intelligent, nor really much of anything.  But if you're considering hiring them for your company, your part includes interviewing them and asking the right questions.  There's no use blaming the educational system if you get lousy people because you make a choice on appearances and don't find out about the person you're bringing aboard.  Same thing if you're considering education for any other reason; you need to find from the individual what he or she really understands and about their character and personality.  Come to that, if you choose to enroll at a college, and the courses you take do not challenge you, force you to grow, then it's your responsibility to do something about it.  College-level students are presumed to be adults, and adults are responsible for their decisions and choices.  Choosing the right school, the right regimen, and working hard to produce your best possible results can change your life for the better, but simply going to college is not enough.  Conversely, while a college graduate is not guaranteed to be smarter or harder working than someone who did not go to college, a degree proves that the individual had enough initiative, intelligence, and follow-through to accomplish the degree, while not going to college proves nothing of the sort.  Many companies require management candidates to have college degrees, because the degree demonstrates at least a minimal level of discipline and accomplishment; at the very least, a college graduate can be trained for somewhat detailed work and to gain additional skills.  A college graduate has demonstrated at least a willingness to grow and expand his or her horizons. 


The critics also have a habit of sneering at degrees they consider non-academic, especially business degrees.  Of course, by that myopic mindset one should reject medical school for ignoring literature, law school for ignoring biology, and even the liberal arts for focusing on just one area within the academic realm.  Never mind that most people go to college in hopes of acquiring a marketable skill, and many businesses sponsor executives to return to school for specific training relevant to their work.  Anyone who sneers at a student with a 3.5+ GPA proves their self an idiot unworthy of further consideration.  Work is work, and accomplishment which sets a student apart from his or her peers deserves praise and recognition.  Some folks simply don't understand case studies don't work the same way as rote memorization, but still count for developing relevant competency, that skills-based coursework in quantitative analysis is as valid as traditional math, and serves a more direct application, and that simulations and models in business theory are as valid as in the 'hard' sciences.  Perhaps more so, because modern scientists seldom seem willing to test their assumptions and double-check whether their models produced valid results.  At least business students understand the Deming Cycle.    


In the end, we each make our own choices regarding career and education, and it's no one else's fault if we make bad choices.  We have all the tools we need to succeed, and while success is not guaranteed, opportunity is abundant and a college degree is, in general, still the best road to intellectual competency and financial success.         



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Comments (17)

DJ,I think you mak... (Below threshold)
Rodney Graves Author Profile Page:


I think you make a good case, but miss the case of your opponents.

The cost of a four year college degree has increased at a far greater rate than the rate of inflation. The largest pool of debt in the United States is no longer credit card debt, but student loans.

The value of a four year college degree has not kept up, and a great many degrees offer no real value outside of academia. This is exacerbated by grade inflation and other factors which produce College Graduates who cannot reason their way out of a paper bag.

One area of your counter argument which does not stand regards small business and entrepreneurship. Failure in a business is often a valuable learning experience. Most of the small business owners I have known had one or more failures before making a going concern.

Ever hear of a three time N... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

Ever hear of a three time NY teacher of the year named John T. Gatto? You should read his take on public education. As a matter of fact, you can read half of one of his books online for free. His take is not charitable.

"Is it any wonder Socrates was outraged at the accusation he took money to teach? Even then, philosophers saw clearly the inevitable direction the professionalization of teaching would take, that of preempting the teaching function, which, in a healthy community, belongs to everyone."

The Underground History of American Education


Rodney is right. The major... (Below threshold)
jim m:

Rodney is right. The major complaint against university education is that the cost benefit ration is way out of whack. People are coming out of school with degrees that will take them a decade or longer to recoup the cost. And college costs have handily outpaced inflation for well over a decade while college endowment funds have ballooned to the point that universities are some of the wealthiest corporations in the country.

As to any sneering at non-academic degrees; I think that comes from the academic community and not the public at large. The recent criticism I have heard has been that students graduate with a degree in Political Science, or History, or English Lit and they have no immediate job prospects. They have spent tens of thousands of dollars for a degree that will be of little use in the real world. They then need an advanced degree and even then the major employer is academia and fewer than 25% will gain tenure track employment there.

What we need is for people to go into nonacademic degree programs like engineering, accounting, business, etc. Degrees that will help build an economy and a nation.

To much time is wasted on useless degrees that are on no avail in the real world. To be sure, I minored in Philosophy, but that was a minor and I majored in Medical Technology, which lead to an excellent career. The Philosophy was personally enriching, but I would never recommend it for a major. Universities mislead students as to the utility of many degrees and they charge far to much for what they offer.

Lastly, I would note that given the large amount of money spent on training new grads that universities do a very poor job of training someone for the workforce. They are mere holding pens for young adults and the degree they offer is only a surrogate marker for generic abilities. You get a Bachelor's Degree and you are deemed to be trainable. There should be a more efficient way of discerning that.

Rodney, the problem I see i... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Rodney, the problem I see in that charge, is that people have literally thousands of accredited schools to choose from, and many of them are affordable. No one makes you spend $40k a year on college, anymore than buying a car means it has to be a Lexus.

For both my Bachelor's and Masters degrees, one important thing I did was to consider cost. It's easier than ever to compare, so no one has reason to complain if they feel the price is not worth the results.

Jim, that's why I made a po... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Jim, that's why I made a point of saying the decision should be made after discussing with family and friends. Even back in the 1970s when I first started college, everyone generally figured out that a liberal arts degree was of little practical use. The only difference today, is that students graduating with useless degrees look for someone to blame, rather than start thinking early about what they will do after college.

The biggest problem with mo... (Below threshold)
Jeff Blogworthy:

The biggest problem with modern education is that it largely represents state monopoly power. Excepting the few who can afford to bypass it. Even then it is a problem. Accreditation is determined by... 3 guesses.

DJ, As a former Chamber of ... (Below threshold)
Duke of DeLand:

DJ, As a former Chamber of Commerce Executive allow me to comment on the absurd % of failures listed. While the figures may be substantively correct they ignore the fact the MOST of the failures occur because of people who come in to the business world riding a magic pony of "WOW, My Own Business!"....and forget the basics.

Most states, some universities, and even some local communities offer "wake up" classes which tell folks the reality of start-ups. Marketing, knowing your market, sufficient funding to survive the start-up period, etc.

Given these basics (and adhering to them!) will move the % of success up to the 60-70% level, in my estimation.

DJ,There have rece... (Below threshold)
jim m:


There have recently been a number of reports of irate Law School grads complaining about the placement claims of the schools they attended (and I think at least one suit on this issue).

The point isn't that some schools are better values than others, it is that college education is outlandishly expensve no matter where you go. While some schools offer better value for their undergrad degrees they are still more expensive than they ought to be. The higher education scam has been to charge ever increasing tuitions, while forcing students to borrow money with taxpayer subsidized loans all the while offering less of a useful education.

More money for less work. You'd think that they were all government run.

DJ,I'll agree that... (Below threshold)
jim m:


I'll agree that you need to know what you are going to do with yourself when you get out. I think that my parents did an acceptable job of making their children figure that out. But I would still say that the universities are deceptive in marketing degrees in many areas that have no future outside of academia and for which there is a limited market for jobs.

"More expensive than the... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

"More expensive than they ought to be". On what scale, Jim? I agree that a lot of students don't plan for what college costs, but I have little sympathy for someone willing to pay $50k for a car but not $100k for a degree, especially when he can get a good one for a lot less than that.

Historically, a good education has always been expensive in the short term. The GI Bill changed that, and a lot of states subsidized college at public schools, which is great but not really ethical, unless the voters were asked if they wanted tax money to be spent that way. All we are seeing now is a return to more normal costs, and people who wanted everything on the cheap complain.

Well, it's like any big expense. Make sure you can use it or need it, make sure you know how you will pay for it, then work your butt off to invest sweat and effort into your money and time investment.

One thing I have not seen from anyone, is a serious alternative for the average 18-to-22 year old. Personally, I would recommend the military, but like school the ones who do well there do the work and invest their best effort. The problem is that not enough parents and students accept that this is their choice, and they can't blame someone else if they fail.

Duke, the thing I don't lik... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Duke, the thing I don't like about the people telling kids to start their own businesses instead of going to college, is the way they ignore the failure rate. You're right that business owners who stick with it and try again will generally become a success ... but not before they spend just as much money as anyone going to college, and the same things that make a good business owner would make an excellent student. Nobody is telling these kids that sitting on your butt and expecting an easy life is a sure path to poverty and useless drudgery.

You got a degree in literat... (Below threshold)

You got a degree in literature? I think that is rather cool DJ. No I'm not slamming the MBA, I have many friends who have that as well. If it is what you enjoy.

Recently, I was speaking wi... (Below threshold)
Jeffrey Carlson:

Recently, I was speaking with a couple in their 40's with a daughter in college. Their daughter attends a prestigious private lutheran college in MN. She was in her senior year. Her tuition was $47,000, in her freshman year it had been $31,000. Total four year cost: $156,000. Her major? Music therapy. Her father worked in a blue collar job, her mother was a school teacher, combined income about $80,000. When I inquired about the marketability of her major, her father looked embaressed, her mother informed me that she would be marketable if she went on to get her masters degree (I question this assumption on her part). Should their daughter decide to go on with her goal of obtaining her masters, total cost for this modest income couple will be approaching $400,000. For a degree in "music therapy". Now, I agree that they bear a lot of the responsibility for their poor descissions, but, it is obvious to me that there is an enormous rip-off of the American family by much of higher education. Six-figure saleries and tenure to teach one class a year, and that is often done by TA's. There is a huge problem in college education with out of control costs, and too many of our young people are being ripped-off by greedy colleges and their cacooned professors. She will probably end-up teaching music therapy to other unfortunate students. If this is somewhat depressing, I suggest some good mood music, it might make it all better.

DJ,The issue is no... (Below threshold)
jim m:


The issue is not what a degree costs. The issue is the time it takes to recover the cost. Some universities are experimenting with charging more for a degree such as engineering, which will result in a higher paying career, and less for an anthropology degree which will get you a job at Starbucks if you are lucky. That would make sense but today most schools charge the same whether you are getting a useful education or not.

I don't disagree with charging $100k for a degree if you can recoup that cost in a reasonable amount of time. If students are looking forward to spending the next 10-20 years of their lives paying off their degrees than they cannot participate in the housing market and that becomes a further drag on the economy.

Yes, the reality of startin... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

Yes, the reality of starting your own business or choosing to be an entrepreneur, especially on your own money, is generally, personally very risky.

The economist Scott Shane, in his book "The Illusions of Entrepreneurship," makes a similar argument. Yes, he says, many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks—but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories. The failures violate all kinds of established principles of new-business formation. New-business success is clearly correlated with the size of initial capitalization. But failed entrepreneurs tend to be wildly undercapitalized. The data show that organizing as a corporation is best.
Mr. Drummond,What ... (Below threshold)

Mr. Drummond,

What a refreshing, well written piece. I'm a 30 year retired enlisted Maine, age 54, pursuing an undergraduate degree; so I'm a non-traditional student. I have no problems focusing on the task at hand as my habits are well set. Each day I put forward my best effort, and finish what I start; and since I am fortunate enough to not have to go work for someone else after graduation, I attend for the shear fun and enjoyment of learning new skill sets. My philosophy has always been that no matter what ones age, if one stops learning - one might as well be dead.

Education cost seem to be a bone that sticks in a lot of craws these days. I should know, I have three family members in college which I am paying for. But I look at it this way: Think an education is expensive? Try ignorance... and see what that costs.

I'm not talking about student loans either; nobody should have to take on the level of debt I hear about - especially the very young. There are other ways to attain ones goals and dreams. Perhaps not the easy road, but the path is open none-the-less: if one is willing to work hard and make the sacrifices to strive and achieve ones full potential.

Taking such a path makes one resilient, builds confidence, enables oneself to think critically, and see the world as it really is (not as it should be). A real education is like having a tool box.

Using just your best tool- applied universally to all tasks, means you only have one sharp tool - and all the rest just get dull and rust away (especially your weaker ones). An education teaches one how to use all the tools from your box, and how to selectively apply them to the appropriate task, situation, or problem. It'll help one to grow and become well rounded in life's journey, and I would recommend a formal education in whatever makes one's heart race or excites one's interest - regardless of one's age.

Semper Fidelis-

I've been at mt current job... (Below threshold)

I've been at mt current job since 1997, and in the profession (IT) since 93. I went to school to teach English but went with my hobby instead of finishing that degree.
I reached a very healthy income without a degree, let alone one in my field. I eventually did get one, however, because in the mind of my company's HR department (and many, many others) I wasn't qualified to do my job. Promotions were right out.






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