The Value of a College Education

Friday, January 13, 2017 -- 12:20 PM
Ken Taylor

Starting the week of January 22, we will be airing our episode about the value of a college education. It’s a show we performed and recorded back in October live in front of an audience of high school students at De Anza High School in Richmond, California. That school serves a very ethnically and economically diverse student body – a reality reflected by our audience. Beside the episode, which will be broadcast next week and available online starting the following week, you can hear the extended audio of audience questions that didn’t make the broadcast here.   But we thought it would be good to get the conversation started even before the show is ready to air. Hence this blog entry! We'd love to know your thoughts about the value of a college education.

When most people think of the value of college, these days, they tend to think in terms of dollars and cents. How much will it cost me? How much will I have to take out in loans to pay for it? Will my future earnings make college worth the cost? Stuff like that. Those are certainly good questions.  And if you want answers to those questions, one place to turn is to the work of my Stanford College Caroline Hoxby, who is one of the foremost economist of education in the entire world.

Economics certainly gives us one way to measure the value of a college education. But it’s not the only way to measure.  Indeed, I think it’s not even the best way. College is about so much more than the size of your future paycheck. I’m with W.E.B. Dubois. He said, “The true college curriculum is the riddle of existence.” And its goal “is not to earn meat” -- i.e. money -- “but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”

Now I can hear some snarky reader saying, “spoken like a philosophy major…“   But two things about that. First, I happen to make a decent living doing philosophy, I’m proud to say. Probably more than your average plumber makes –  I’m talking to you Marco Rubio.   Actually,  philosophy wasn’t  my major in college. I started out as an engineer, dabbled in psychology, then mathematics, and finally ended up majoring in this cool Great Books program. Which goes to show, in my mind that you should go with the major you love in college and let the economic future take care of itself. It turns out that your undergraduate major doesn’t have all that much direct bearing on what your end up doing for living. Indeed, the aforementioned  Caroline Hoxby  has some pretty interesting insights on the connection between undergraduate major and lifetime future earnings, and the results might surprise you.

Of course, if you try telling that to nervous parents, who worry that their kid’s fancy degree in philosophy, say, is an express ticket to poverty, unemployment, and living in their basement, you are not likely to move them very much at all. Now I don't deny that parents can be a problem.  But I tell students all the time that there comes a time when you have to listen to your own inner voice and block out the voice of your parents.  But if you are worried about what your parents will say about your choice to major in philosophy, I’ve got a little advice. Just lie. You may think I’m joking, but I’m actually dead series. First you lie and say, “I’m gonna major in dance!” You wait a little bit… let the panic set in. Then you spring the truth on them. “Just kidding. I’m really going to major in philosophy.” They’ll be too relieved to give you grief.

Now if your parents are the more reasonable type, there’s no reason to lie. Philosophy majors have one of the lowest post-graduation unemployment rates. Lower than certain stem majors like chemical engineering, math, biology, or physics. Lower than more vocational and applied majors like graphic design, industrial engineering, or architecture. And the point isn’t that philosophy won’t ruin your life, after all. The point is that philosophy – and other fields of the humanities and social sciences – helps prepare you for life. They do so by enhancing student’s powers of mind, expanding their horizons, deepening their sympathies. That’s why Du Bois loved the Liberal Arts so much.

Of course, I grant that most people see college quite that way these days. Way too many people see college -- especially elite colleges like Stanford or Harvard or Yale -- as the brass ring at the end of some frantic race. That’s why parents and students often allow their college choices to be influenced by those pointless colleges ratings put out by the likes of US News and World Report. And why they sometimes spend tens of thousands of dollars on private college counselors. Speaking only for myself, I would love to put a complete stop to the whole multibillion dollar private counselor industry. Unfortunately, that genie is not going back into its bottle anytime soon. But I do hope that our episode this week gives both parents and students and different way to think about the true value of a college education.

 

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