People have always debated the value of a college education. With the cost of attendance constantly on the rise, it is natural to wonder if the time, money and effort required to obtain a bachelor’s degree is really worth it. In the face of the Great Recession many insist that it is not. Citing to prospects of higher student loan debt with lower job opportunity it is an increasingly common belief that college is a waste of time and money. However, in focusing strictly on the economic issues associated with higher education, those who support this belief ignore the vast number of benefits conveyed by a college education, most of which are not reflected in its cost.
The latest iteration of the anti-college argument is advanced in Saying No To College by Alex Williams. See Alex Williams, Saying No To College, New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/fashion/saying-no-to-college.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (Nov. 30, 2012). Focusing on those who found success in the recent app boom, Williams portrays those who dropped out of college as “swashbuckling” millennial “mavericks” who, following in the footsteps of geniuses like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, or Mark Zuckerberg, found success only because they were liberated from the chains academia. This is not a new argument. The legend of the uneducated genius has persisted for a long time. Those bad at math (or tying their shoes) cling to the fact that Albert Einstein was himself a failure. Need a reason not to go high school? Well if Thomas Edison can invent the light bulb with only three months of formal education certainly there’s no need for 12 full years. Success stories abound, each case of mavricky uneducated triumph has one thing in common; these people were all exceptions, anomalies even, 1 out of several billon. Foregoing college is no guarantee that you will end up in the long line of triumphant truants. In fact it is much more likely the opposite will happen. That you will end up working a lower paying, low skilled job for which a degree is not required. To suggest otherwise is simply to focus only on the good statistics, an intellectually dishonest argument with no real traction.
The next problem with the argument in favor of foregoing college is that it ignores the fact that many of the unbatchelored idols it follows attended college while they developed the ideas that eventually made them successful. It was only once their ideas grew to the point where it was necessary to drop out that they made this decision. For example, it was at Harvard that Bill Gates found the time, resources, and people like Paul Allen, that were needed to start Microsoft. Or where Mark Zuckerberg enlisted the help of his roommates to spread Facebook and turn it into something different from the other social networks available at the time. In both cases it was the university environment that help spawn their success. This should come as no surprise. Universities have long been hotbeds of innovation. Placing students, professors, and intellectuals from all different fields in one environment leads to great things. Downplaying the benefit of attending a university, even if it is just to develop the next great idea, is foolish at best.
Lastly, those who downplay the value of attending college improperly look only to the potential economic gain conferred by earning a degree while ignoring the intangible or non-quantifiable benefits derived from higher education. This kind of limited cost benefit analysis pairs the cost of attending college with the expected salary upon graduation and determines that, given the expected return on investment, college is a bad idea. There are other things that could prove much more lucrative that cost much less money. Williams identifies this mindset in Saying No To College as a feeling of “[w]hy should I load up on debt just to binge drink for four years when I could just create an app that nets me all the money I’ll ever need?” The answer is simple. First, let’s just point out it is extremely unlikely that you will create such an app. Second, college is more than just a time to consume copious amount of federal loan money and lite beer. It provides an intellectual foundation and period of growth many are unlikely to find elsewhere. There is a benefit to forcing students to read, study, and think about subjects that are outside their comfort zone. Sure some take their studies more seriously than others and yes, Will Hunting, you may be able to get almost the same education for $2.50 in late fees at the Boston Public Library but let’s be real. Given the time, almost no one is going to spend their day at the library making sure they receive the same education they would have had they attended a four-year university. There is a reason that only happened in a movie. College forces people to engage in ways they would not otherwise. That, in and of itself, is worth the cost of attendance.
College gives people depth. The loss of that depth is the true cost of not attending. While it may be easy to justify letting a 20-year-old wunderkind go because he is able to write code for a silicon-valley start up, it an extremely shortsighted decision except in limited number cases. The odds are that college drop out or gap decade taker are not the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Thomas Edison. They are simply average like the rest of us. And like the rest of us, what they leave behind in failing to continue their education is a perspective on the world beyond the compiler, refugee camp, backpacking hostel, public library or whatever area they use to fill their time. That is something that cannot be valued by a cost benefit analysis and is a gap that persists regardless of whether they end up successful or not.