In the documentary, Ivory Tower, the filmmaker Andrew Rossi takes Higher Education to task. Like many film directors competing for public attention, Mr. Rossi makes some bold assertions about an obvious question in order to create controversy. He asks if a college education is really worth it? Then he goes on to lament problems of mounting student debt, universities operating on a strictly business model, and college instructors who pander to students who appear to prefer good grades over actual knowledge.
But if we were to assume that Mr. Rossi is actually asking the right question, which I believe he is not (more on that below), what would be the right answer? Recently in the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt offers his insights in a thoughtful and compelling essay entitled “Is College Worth it? Clearly, New Data Say Yes.” While Mr. Leonhardt is quick to acknowledge that not everyone is immediately employable straight out of college and there even are some who initially accept positions for which they clearly are overqualified, he states that a “four-year degree has never been more valuable.” Citing U.S. Labor Department Statistics he concludes that “yes, college is worth it, and it’s not even close” when we examine the pay gap between those who finish and those who do not (or who never even start college in the first place). Mr. Leonhardt also quotes M.I.T. economist Dr. David Autor who says it quite simply: “We have too few college graduates” rather than too many. Like the person we occasionally meet who seems to have all the answers, it appears that Mr. Rossi is guilty of not asking enough questions, or maybe, simply not asking the right question.
Another way of asking his original question seems to be one even more fundamental: does a university education guarantee a college graduate will find a job? This really is what many parents want to know when they send their grown children off to college. I would argue that this question probably is more central in the minds of parents who are faced with paying anywhere from $16,000-$60,000 annually for their son or daughter to attend a four-year institution of higher education. But is this really the right question? Has sending kids to college become synonymous with investing family income in an outcome that automatically and immediately translates into net new income on the other end?
This more fundamental question could be answered in various ways. For example, there is the “compared to what” query. Will college graduates be more directly employable than say, a high school graduate or high school dropout? So compared to a high school grad, might we believe a college graduate to be more highly employable (and for jobs that pay better) than someone who stops at a high school level of education? I don’t believe Mr. Rossi wishes to argue this point and I doubt if anyone else would either. Surely more education is better than less just as certainly as being able to read and write and speak a native language is more helpful than not.
If we wanted to stick with the “does college pay off” line of reasoning we could think of it as a supply and demand problem. Only seven percent of the world’s population possesses a college degree, a point which underscores Dr. Autor’s statement from above that too few have attained a college education. Instead of equating one specific college degree with one specific job, colleges and universities offer the best available route for high school graduates to grow and mature in order to recognize their full human potential, prepare them for lifelong learning, and also compete in a global economy.
But even this question as I have re-phrased it really is not the question that particularly is the right one to ask. Colleges are not factories that train workers for jobs in any direct sense. We have trade schools for that (and some high schools even offer vocational and technical curriculum that will lead to work right after high school, albeit for jobs that are not terribly high skilled or well-paying). By comparison, universities are places of higher learning where students who have been broadly educated in K through 12 learn analytical reasoning, how to express themselves in both written and oral forms, and to think creatively on par with the best and brightest that society has to offer. That’s what I hoped for when I sent all three of my own children to college to seek higher knowledge. Furthermore, I was thrilled when two of the three indicated an interest in continuing their graduate studies beyond the bachelor’s level (I’m still optimistic that the third one will come around to this same point of view).
So we could think of investing in higher education in a more thoughtful way. College does not prepare students for a sprint. It readies them for a marathon. And at Sul Ross, we do this well and at a cost clearly at the lowest end of the college cost continuum. This is why we like to say that our students and their parents are some of the wisest investors on the planet!