June 20, 2008

"A youth who had begun to read geometry with Euclid, when he had learnt the first proposition, inquired, 'What do I get by learning these things?' So Euclid called a slave and said 'Give him threepence, since he must make a gain out of what he learns.'"
- Stobaeus, "Extracts"

Like so many other things in life, a university education is an investment: in time, in money, in oneself. And like so many other investments, its value can rise, even skyrocket; or it can vanish entirely. It is entirely up to the individual.

In N. America, the cost of postsecondary education is a major issue. To those families earning an average income or lower, it will often be prohibitive. On top of this base cost should be factored textbooks, lab supplies, any professional tools, possibly sports, possibly fraternity/sorority fees, possibly room and board. Scholarships and other financial assistance may be available to help defray the cost, and such assistance is increasingly tax-deductable - but loans need to be repaid, and the interest clock usually starts ticking shortly after graduation.

In exchange, various studies have suggested that a N. American college graduate can expect to earn between $800,000 and two million dollars more than a high school graduate over the course of their lifetime: but it should be remembered that this is an average. Musicians, artists, writers all have average incomes far below the national averages for their countries ... and the highest incomes in the music industry often go to those bands whose members did not take the time out for a college education. Those who seek the highest financial return for their education probably should focus entirely on one of a very few a few professional fields: medicine, dentistry, business, and to a lesser extent law and engineering, and be prepared to spend four years and more in school. Those who are willing to relocate to the Middle East and change their expectations of what constitutes societal rights might recap their financial investment in nursing. Few indeed are those who will recap their financial investment in teaching.

(For those tempted to follow the current and rising spike in computer engineering, consider first the object lessons in the software fields. Globalisation has only begun to change the shape of our societal world.)

Outside the professional fields, it might be better to view a future degree as a union card, without which a job applicant won't even be considered for many of the jobs which offer average to above-average salaries and have any kind of growth potential. Justly or not, many employers now require college degrees for jobs which don't require college-level skills. Perhaps the kindest way to look at this use of a college degree is as a certificate of a certain amount of perserverence. While the technical skills of these jobs really don't require any college training whatsoever, it won't matter if the applicant can't even get their foot through the hiring door.

The purpose of a college education is now so hotly disputed that it is no longer a certain thing even what kind of skills a student will acquire in the process of completing a degree. Where the focus is primarily on turning out an employable student, courses outside the professional faculties will tend to concentrate in the areas required by the current and anticipated job market: economics, psychology, geography (ecology, water, food), statistics, bioethics, most sciences. Liberal arts colleges often aim to produce a 'well-rounded person', but this is rarely directly useful in the skillset job field, and few graduates have much desire to sustain the roots of such an education for its own sake. (How many college students even read all the required reading material of a course?) However, it should be noted that second-language skills in particular have been tightly correlated with greater mental flexibility in all fields, and fluency in a second language is always an employment asset. In any case, one seldom goes wrong by learning to speak another's language.

Two other college approaches are those of teaching critical thinking and teaching how to make an effective argument. While these might seem complementary on the surface, they quickly become opposites as the student establishes a personal paradigm that is no longer subject to being examined critically, only to being promoted. Thus the skill of sustained critical thinking is not usually one that survives the second year of postsecondary education, being replaced by the ability to define a position and defend it. Linking one's personal paradigm to that of an established political or lobby group, especially in conjunction with established argumentative skills, comes both with high employability and with its own mutual affirmation social group.

Networking is a related benefit. People met and connected with in college become a social network that can remain intact for years, especially when a particular college education experience has included either team sports or fraternity/sorority membership. Potentially, this can create a network of contacts all over the world.

Too many newly minted graduates assume that because they now have letters behind their name, they are now smarter or somehow better than the person who has studied at life's school. Consider: our mothers and our fathers probably did not go to college, and our grandparents almost certainly did not. Have an extra two or so years of school made us wiser than them?

Most students come out of college with some knowledge of things abstract. Only in a very few fields will those abstract knowledges have anything directly to do with the duties of a given job: and even there, they will probably require a completely new context for their appropriate job-related use. It is entirely likely that others, less educated, will know the ways of the job far better than the new graduate; and may also have something worth learning in the ways of life itself.

In the end, the value of a college education is only ever what a person puts into it. The letters after a new graduate's name will often be the same whether the student took the challenging courses in their field or the easy ones, whether they worked for high grades and to learn and even sometimes to discover, or chose to coast through at a level just above failing. Anyone may choose to undertake a college education. It is entirely up to the individual what they choose to gain out of it.

(The graduation speech is well established. Where are the orientation guidance speeches? How can good fruit be harvested from a tree which has never been set firmly into the soil?)

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