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Thoughts on Education and the Value of a College Degree

It is not hard to argue that, materially, US college education can be worth the cost in certain circumstances. An economics student who goes on to have a successful career at a Wall Street bank may be able to use the skills they acquired during their degree to earn sums of money far in excess of its cost within only a few years of graduating. Clearly, the reverse is also true; the use or lack of use of higher education depends heavily on individual students, colleges, courses, circumstances in later life, and so on. While this should be borne mind, it is still instructive to consider average figures. $9,000 tuition fees over four years give a total cost of $36,000, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to the additional $20,000 per year earned by graduates as against non-graduates. On this basis, over a forty year working life the former earn an extra $800,000. This seems to be a prima facie case that, in the long-term, college education across the US population justifies the cost many times over. Whether employers are right to value a degree in this way is another question, but from the perspective of a random American teenager considering further study, the recent rises in tuition fees are likely to pale into insignificance compared with the lifelong financial advantages.

Worthy Education

However, a college education can be worth so much more than this. Again, different people will have different experiences, not all of which will be positive, but university can provide opportunities for intellectual, social, physical and emotional growth and development that may not be encountered at any other time in life. Being surrounded by like-minded individuals with time and scope to experiment can give rise to self-exploration whose greatest value should be seen as intrinsic. Many of the greatest individual joys and human advances have taken place when people have had the luxury to think beyond simple self-sufficiency and instead pursue their passions. Religion, literature, science, sport, culture - all have been engendered not by material necessity but by leisure. To reject the opportunity for people to express themselves, however they might wish to do so, is to lose a large portion of what humans have achieved since the inception of agriculture and the advent of time free of ensuring simply that you and your family had food, water, and shelter.

There can be no definitive answer to this question, particularly in such a brief essay. Across the world, “college education” means different things to different people, as do “worth,” “effort” and even “cost.” Yet perhaps this is significant in itself. Perhaps the very uncertainties surrounding the value of higher education make it worth trying; whatever journey occurs during those years, a student will at the very least have a chance to gain a better understanding of himself or herself and their unique place in the world, rather than having to accept at face value the different versions of these ideas forced upon them by others. It is therefore quite beside the point that the average graduate of an American university is likely to look back on their degree as a highly lucrative investment. It may sound like a cliché to say that the real value of a college education is intangible, but the statement is no less true for it.