Here is a guest post by David E. Drew, who holds holds the Platt Chair at the School of Educational Studies at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif.
Recently, several critics have questioned whether a college education is worth the time, energy and expense in today’s economy. I believe that college matters more today than ever.
Michael Ellsberg, writing in The New York Times, notes that some pioneering technology innovators, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, were college dropouts. He argues that dropout entrepreneurs acquire organization building skills in the work world and don’t need college.
The fact that a few dropouts made millions does not mean that most dropouts will. By the same logic, I could cite Nobel laureates Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn and Martin Luther King, or Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, each of whom wrote brilliant prose or poetry while in prison, and argue that you should go to prison to fuel creativity. Most college dropouts don’t create start-up companies and most don’t make millions.
To the contrary, hard financial data show that college graduates make considerably more money than dropouts. According to the US Department of Labor, the median weekly earnings in 2009 for those with “some college” were $699. The earnings for those with a college degree were $1,025 per week. Multiply the difference by 52 weeks per year, and then compute this earning difference for a 45-year career. The lifetime financial benefit to not dropping out of college is, on average, well in excess of three quarters of a million dollars.
Ellsberg suggests that college grads do better because they had more potential even before they entered college, what’s called a ‘selection effect.’ But you can’t argue simultaneously that a) dropouts are more likely to be the talented innovators and b) the reason college graduates make more money is that they are innately more talented than the dropouts.
In the new high-tech global economy, education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is crucial. America’s greatest educational strength is higher education. Outstanding students from across the globe flood our colleges and graduate schools.
Our Achilles heel is elementary and secondary education. American high school students routinely score at, or close to, the bottom on international assessments of math and science achievement, well below students from such countries as Japan, Ireland and Slovakia.
Bill Gates has said, “When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow.”
In a knowledge-based economy, higher education may save America.
In the industrial age, a young person did not need college to work productively. Factory jobs often demanded great skill, but those skills could be learned on the job. In the information age, a young person must anticipate changing jobs, and changing careers, multiple times in his or her lifetime. College and STEM are more important than ever. A liberal arts education teaches students how to think critically: how to pose problems, how to question assumptions, and how to evaluate options. These are the cognitive skills that will be needed by tomorrow’s workers, whom Robert Reich has labeled, “symbolic analysts.”
College provides access to careers that simply are not open to non-college grads. The American dream has always been that the poorest children among us have the opportunity to succeed. A college education has always been the principal vehicle for transformative change: for moving from poverty to the middle class — and to the upper-middle class. College prepares the leaders of tomorrow.
Furthermore, many innovative teachers and professors introduce students to practical entrepreneurial, career-building skills. You don’t have to look beyond higher education to learn how to network, to communicate a new idea persuasively, or to lead a group.
Aside from earnings and career enhancement, a liberal arts education adds to the pleasure and meaning of one’s life. A college education enlarges students’ worldview, introduces them to culturally enriching experiences, and compels students to review, question and solidify their core values.
Admittedly, student debt has gotten out of hand. Today’s college students and their parents must seek a quality education while trying not to accumulate huge student loan debts.
Sometimes this means spending the first two years at community college. Often financial realities lead students to enter public colleges and universities. Private institutions often provide resources, e.g., need-based scholarships, to make attendance affordable for students with limited financial means.
We must take strong steps as a country to reduce the debt burden for a generation of students. We need the national equivalent of the G.I. Bill now, or an alternative massive restructuring of the current student loan/repayment system.
Also, some talented high school graduates do not want to go to college. They seek a career in skilled labor occupations, e.g., as welders or electricians, that pay well and do not require a college degree. But, even today, the cost/benefit ratio still shows that a college education is a net gain for most students.
America’s colleges and universities represent a powerful asset in the emerging worldwide competition for ideas, innovation, and jobs. Let’s not sell them short because a few geniuses have succeeded without a college degree.
I can’t help but wonder: do the vocal critics of higher education discourage their own children from seeking a college education?
I doubt it.