The Value of a College Education

Sunday, June 16, 2019
First Aired: 
Sunday, January 22, 2017

What is it

With 43.3 million Americans burdened with a total of $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, high school students thinking about attending college are faced with a daunting decision. Should they risk joining the ranks of the indebted in order to get a college degree? The answer depends on the value of a college education. Are college graduates happier, or better prepared for life? Is it the government’s job to ensure that investing in college is worth it for students? Should public colleges be free? Or would that decrease their value? And would studying philosophy increase or decrease the value of a college education? John and Ken get collegial with former Stanford president John Hennessy, in a program recorded live at De Anza High School in Richmond, California.

Listening Notes

When people think of the value of a college education, they tend to think of it in monetary terms. But Ken doesn’t think that measuring the economic value of a college education is the best way to go. College is about so much more than the size of your future paycheck. For example, the major you choose may actually end up having little bearing on what you actually end up doing, so you should just pick your passion and follow it. Even if parents are concerned about employability – some with reason – there comes a time when you have to listen to your own intuition and voice. And if you choose to go with Philosophy, you’ll actually be among the majors with higher employment rates! Who would’ve guessed? John and Ken further discuss how the liberal arts prepare you for life and the utter pointlessness of college ratings.

John and Ken welcome guest John Hennessy, former Stanford University President. John asks this special guest why he decided to drop a successful career in Silicon Valley – John Hennessy is, after all, not called the Godfather of Silicon Valley for nothing – and return to academia. John explains that he came back because he really loved working with students and teaching in the classroom. John follows up: there’s a lot of pressure for students to go to college, although only about a third of Americans hold a 4-year college degree. So should everyone go to college? Some sort of education beyond high school, John Hennessy believes, is crucial in terms of creating opportunity and live a really fulfilling life. That’s not to say everyone should go to an elite institution – for some students, community college is just right; for others, it’s a four-year program. The most important thing isn’t starting college but completing it. Ken asks about the college rating system and hyper-focus on competitive admissions, to which John replies that an undergraduate degree is a foundation, it’s the beginning. It’s the start, rather than the end, of your education.

So the student gets into their dream college. Then comes the truly hard part: the freedom that a college education offers. The amount of choice, the variety, the different fields of study. And, as Ken says, freedom can be hard to navigate! He asks John to give students advice on how to embark on this journey. John says that it’s all about following your passion, and there’s two reasons for that: you should enjoy what you’re learning about, and whatever you study is likely to lead to some kind of career direction. The last thing you want to do is spend your life working on something that doesn’t interest you. So dabble – try different courses, stretch your wings. In the U.S., you have room to experiment. That said, a college education is a big investment of time and money, so you can’t completely put aside your career concerns. You have to strike for a balance between the two.

The three welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by tackling questions such as: is college a place reserved for people who have already found their passion? Or can people with undecided majors go and explore? What do colleges generally look for in students? Does the area you come from affect how your application is viewed? What role do gender and race play in college admissions?

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 7:29): Philosophy Talk's Reporter Shuka Kalantari investigates the billion-dollar private college consulting industry, which feeds into the fears of high school students and their worried parents. She talks to Richard Shaw, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Stanford University, and to Nicole Hoseman, a college admissions consultant, about how important it is to pick a school that’s right for you.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:12): Ian Shoales talks about the hard life of rockstars in 2017 and how you practically need a college education to be a rockstar nowadays.  

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 -- 12:39 PM

If one truly knows what he

If one truly knows what he/she wishes to do in life, then an area in which one majors, be that law; medicine; engineering; physics or what-have-you, is crucial. Courses of study leading to a bachelor's degree are a foundation, but not necessarily any more than that, and before amassing thousands of dollars in student debt, it behooves any young scholar to have some concrete plan-of-action. I did not have a successful life, in today's terms. In retirement, I live by my wits as much as I did in the late 1960s and 1970s. My plan-of-action got derailed by a war in which I refused to participate. I was never able (nor truly willing) to get the train back on track. Getting an education needs to be pursued with the same determination and single-mindedness as running a business. I guess career counselors are supposed to have some skills in this regard. But, I would not know this as fact. Never had a career counselor. Training my mind to think has been my life-long vocation. Getting there. Finally.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, June 15, 2019 -- 11:32 AM

...The cynical pragmatist

...The cynical pragmatist might say: A college education is worth it, and only worth it, when it has been paid off. But, if one is already forty-five or fifty years old by such time, we can little berate him for any regrets which have surfaced.


John L. Hennessy, Tenth President of Stanford University


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