… this debate has been smoldering for the past 3 years about the true value of higher education.
Recently, the issue of student debt has once again come back to the forefront of public discourse. The New York Times did a fairly lengthy cover story on it. A chorus of commentators, including notable critic Mark Cuban, a media and tech mogul, has been even more vocal in comparing higher education to the last housing bubble. In some ways, this debate has been smoldering for the past 3 years about the true value of higher education. And it seems to flare up every year, ever since the great financial crisis of 2009.
Last year, this round of debate was brought to the forefront with a Techcrunch article about Peter Thiel’s critique on higher education. Thiel, famous for being the co-founder of Paypal and for investing in Facebook had predicted the 2000 dot-com bust and the housing market crash of 2009 (along with inflated financial assets). In the case of education, the demand is partly driven by the increasing income bump between college and high school graduates.
However, due to the ever-increasing cost of higher education, combined with unemployment, underemployment, and falling wages for college graduates, the financial benefits of a college education are being called into doubt. The perceived value of higher education is being chipped away from both ends. On one end, tuition costs continue to rise due to the state’s budget cuts and its self-inflicted, pre-financial-crisis race to provide amenities. On the other end, the internet looms as a disruptive force of commodification. As more and more content migrates online, it’s possible to see the disruptive dynamic of the internet starts to exert price pressure on traditional outlets (i.e. Khan Academy, Academic Earth). For example, Wikipedia started off pretty bad, but now it’s good enough and has flattened its competitors.
This critique is based on the idea that we should be evaluating schools based only on our future income.
This critique is based on the idea that we should be evaluating schools based only on our future income. The main question for students in an economic system where the work force is fungible is whether they should specialize in a field, or become a generalist. For the education consumers, it’s hard to gauge the opportunity cost of time and tuition versus one’s future earning potentials.
I would argue that education isn’t just a vocational exercise to increase our pay and access our stable income streams. Personally, I found my education valuable in many ways, especially from my non-technical pursuits of history, language, literature, and music. Even my technical education provided an appreciation for the aesthetics of logical reasoning and problem solving— an appreciation whose value extends beyond what is immediately marketable. These gave me a foundation that I can draw on to relate to the humanity of others, and myself. The inner connections of these pursuits provide a richness that compounds as life progresses, and yes, also helps me make a better living (Steve Jobs would agree).
Every immersive act of reading, thinking, writing helps to create a foundation that I can draw on to relate to others. Because of my exposure to a wide variety of ideas and aesthetics, I find new ways to be genuinely interested in a wide variety of people. Inwardly, education has become a process of reflection through which I’ve learned how to sift through the cavalcade of thoughts I have been digesting throughout my life. It gives me the ability to jump out of the immediate feedback loop of friends, culture, family, work, and media that has conditioned my habitual thoughts. In our informationally-accelerated, technologically-upending world, it’s more important than ever to have a center that both grounds us and allows us to assess our humanity, beyond the opportunities provided by the everyday deluge.
 National Center for Education Statistics, “Annual earnings of young adults, by educational attainment (pdf)”.