The Value of a College Education

13 January 2017

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.

Comments (4)'s picture

Sunday, June 16, 2019 -- 12:00 PM

Why did you dodge the

Why did you dodge the question about elitism? The lady wanted to know how you'd address elitism and all the replies had to do with finding a path. Too sensitive a subject for you 3 elites to deal with?'s picture


Sunday, June 16, 2019 -- 2:05 PM

I think this is a good point

I think this is a good point that you raise, but the overuse of "elite" as a broad-spectrum sneer that even Republican politicians have adopted makes it sound as though you are simply ranting. Insulting an adversary is a weak rhetorical strategy, and alienates not only him, but any listeners who are open-minded on the issues being discussed. It's why Trump can't get past his 40% base, and has to rely on an antiquated electoral college, gerrymandering, dark money, and Russian tampering if he is to win his next election.

Almost no one who is in an elite THINKS he or she is elite, and will simply feel insulted if you say so. I share your dissatisfaction with the discussion, but it shows how entrenched academia is in the myth or ideology of a meritocracy. Since all societies are hierarchical, the question of who deserves to be IN the upper realms of that hierarchy is a constant matter of discussion, and of widespread discontent among those who feel unfairly excluded. Most criminals think of themselves as unfairly treated, and fight back by breaking laws, while the 90% + of applicants who don't get into Stanford believe they are as well qualified and those admitted, and in many cases they are correct. But there must be SOME laws, and SOME criteria for college admission. Would you prefer wealth, good looks, athletic ability, family connections, or other arbitrary criteria to be substituted? The participants in today's discussion all rejected a lottery, although it's a tempting alternative, but one result might be that TOTALLY unqualified applicants would be encouraged to apply, in which case Stanford might be overrun by students utterly unable to benefit from the education Stanford has to offer. Such students are better served by community colleges and job training programs. Some community college students transfer to Stanford and do quite well.

Fresno E's picture

Fresno E

Thursday, June 20, 2019 -- 10:48 AM

Why do I have to go to

Why do I have to go to college to learn about myself? Why not advocate for a gap year or two, or military service or peace corps to find out what interests you have. How about spending a year laying bricks or digging ditches to see that you really don't want that life. Why are you advocating for $28,000/year (average) in debt in order to "find myself".'s picture


Tuesday, August 13, 2019 -- 12:37 PM

I can't imagine myself

I can't imagine myself without a college education, or the graduate degrees in English Literature that I subsequently received. A great professor of mine would tell his Humanities survey classes (required of Columbia freshmen at the time - in the 'sixties, and for many decades before) that they were in college to MAKE a self, rather than John Perry's more familiar bromide that they are FINDING a self. I think probably both are true, but they point in opposite directions - looking deep within, versus looking widely outside oneself. It could be useful to debate the truth of these apparently conflicting ideas, but they do agree that one is in college to develop a "self," as opposed to preparing for some job or career, which if the student can afford it, could be more usefully postponed to a graduate or professional school - or otherwise through on-the-job training and experience - AFTER one has discovered or made oneself.

This is why my strongest reaction to the program was shock that a recent and revered former president of Stanford is a COMPUTER SCIENTIST, who majored in college as an ENGINEER. Although affable and obviously intelligent, his education apparently consisted of looking deep within and finding a love of a trending technology, and then making himself into a specialist in a field so narrow that people working in it are obsolete after ten years, and then either become managers or unemployable derelicts. The latter happened to two cousins of mine, one (with a Masters in Computer Science) of whom is unemployed and supported by his social worker wife, and the other who owned a liquor store for a while, and is now retired on social security. Both are discouraged and bitter, as I would be in their shoes.

What appreciation can a man who "found himself" by sitting in a computer lab night after night in college, and then went on to study computing in more depth, and finally to teach it, have of the wide range of human knowledge and inquiry that is the object of study at a great, or even a run-of-the-mill university?

I can only infer that this ex-president of Stanford was really good at raising money, and had good people skills as well. His discussion today of how Stanford admits students reflected an eye totally uncritical of the current selection process, and also of the way college students are currently educated, with a strong emphasis on success, and finding a profession suited to their talents. These are no doubt goals that Stanford is very good at achieving, but their student cohort is such that most of them would do as well, or better, if they were to graduate from any other accredited college or university. The real value of a Stanford education to most graduates is the name "Stanford" on their resumes, as well as, perhaps, the network of connections they may have made while there.