Why should you go to college? This is a completely valid question and one that doesn’t get asked nearly enough. Not going to college isn’t even a thought I entertained when deciding which college to go to after graduating high school. It’s pretty shameful that I and the people paying for my education – my parents – didn’t seriously consider the alternatives before deciding to shell out well over a hundred thousand dollars. Nevertheless, after having completed 3 years of college, let me explain the reasons that I now think justify my attendance.
First however, before I say anything else let me say that I don’t think college is for everyone. The reasons I will offer are the ones that make college attendance compelling for me. I hope they prove compelling for you too. But, if not, then you are free to disagree – or agree for different reasons.
As I see it, there are two general categories into which justifications for college attendance fall. The first are practical. That is, college is a means to some vocational end and is, on net, economically beneficial. The second category of justifications is more amorphous and personal – college is both an end in itself, enjoyable on its own terms and, in grandiloquent terms, it helps cultivate the mind and character.
The first category of justifications is of course legitimate and worth serious weight in any discussion of whether to go to college. I think the evidence pretty clearly indicates that on purely practical grounds college attendance makes sense. For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate in 2011 for those who only have a high school diploma was 9.4%, while it was 4.9% for those with a bachelor’s degree. The median weekly earnings in 2011 were $638 for high school graduates, while they were $1,053 for those with a bachelor’s degree. For those with even less education (that is, less than a high school diploma), the numbers are even worse. In fact, the BLS website shows these unemployment and income statistics for several levels of educational attainment. There is a pretty clear trend towards higher earning and lower unemployment as education increases.
Furthermore, it appears that Bachelor’s degrees, relative to high school diplomas, have come to be worth more over time – not less. According to the Pew Research Center, since 1976 the ratio of earnings for those with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with a high school education has increased from earning 1.1 times more to earning around 1.5 times more.
However, these broad-brush statistics do not suffice as a justification for college attendance on practical grounds. Just because people with bachelor’s degrees earn more on average doesn’t mean that going to college is financially justified. The monetary benefits have to offset the costs. With ever-rising tuition costs this may not always be the case. However, according to the Pew Research Center the costs still seem to be well offset by the benefits. They calculate that the typical college graduate earns a net total of $550,000 more than the typical high school graduate over the course of an average 40-year work life (with the huge assumption in their calculations that the person attends an in-state public college or university – nonetheless you can vary the out-of-pocket college costs to match your particular situation).
These important economic considerations can’t be ignored. And they all point strongly to the conclusion that college graduates earn more than those who don’t graduate college. If you’re in it for the money, go to college.
Nevertheless, these statistics may be too general to be particularly useful for making a personal decision to go to college. If you really are trying to make a decision based purely on financial considerations, you would do better with more specific information – for example, knowing the median earnings of the people who attended the school you plan on attending and chose the same major as you plan on choosing is much more useful than knowing the national average for people with bachelor’s degrees. (Some more specific statistics, broken down by major, are available here.)The same applies for the cost of your education – as you may not be going to an in-state undergraduate program where you pay $1,540 per year in tuition and fees. You also have to account for your particular opportunity cost of attending college (perhaps either way you were going to take over your father’s business after you finished your schooling).
High school and college graduates differ in their satisfaction with their decisions
Earlier I said that I would provide the reasons I find college attendance personally justified. However, after making a difficult decision between two options that are close in value, we often tend to search for reasons to justify the choice we made to make ourselves feel better about not choosing the foregone alternative. If this were the case here and the choice between going to college and not going were indeed very similar in value, then we should find that people who chose to go to college feel satisfied with their decision, and those who chose not to go to college also feel satisfied with their decision. However, this is not what we find. The evidence indicates that college graduates are generally glad they went to college, while those who didn’t go to college wish they did. For example, in a survey conducted by conducted by Knowledge Networks in 2012, only 3% of the college graduates from 2006-2011 say that in retrospect they would not have gone to college. Meanwhile, 70% of those who don’t have college degrees and were not enrolled in school full-time maintained “they would need more education if they were to have a successful career.”
Tuition costs: a serious issue
While college seems justified on practical grounds, there is one reason in particular that the question is a closer call than it would otherwise be – the soaring cost of tuition.
Tuition rates in the US are literally the highest in the world (according to the OECD – see page 258). And not only are they the highest, they have been rising rapidly. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, from the relatively short span from 1999–2000 to 2009–10, the cost of undergraduate tuition, room, and board increased by 37% at public institutions and 25% at private institutions, AFTER ADJUSTING FOR INFLATION! Not to mention that for the first time in history, the total size of student loan debt has surpassed that of credit card debt.
This is a serious problem. And it needs to be dealt with. However, it is not a reason to abandon college altogether. (For example, just as an example of possible reforms, in the UK there are tuition fees which limit tuition to a maximum of £9,000, or slightly less than $15,000.s)
Furthermore, it’s important to take note of the fact that while tuition has been increasing across the board, the cost of going to a private four-year institution is much higher than going to a public one. And there are many excellent public schools – that are better than their private school alternatives. UC-Berkeley, the University of Michigan and UVA are all public institutions and among the best universities in the country.
Personal reasons for attending college
Presumably those who justify college attendance solely on fiscal grounds would choose not to attend college if high school graduates made even one net dollar more – or would be indifferent to attending college if graduates made the exact same amount as non-graduates. I can’t say the same. In fact, I would attend college even at a significant (net) personal cost. This is because it provided me significant benefit intellectually, socially as well as pure enjoyment.
Some people might say that college broadened, expanded and enriched their intellectual horizons. I completely agree with the sentiment. But, I find the exact wording somewhat inaccurate. Broadening, expanding and enriching imply a quantitative increase. But many of the things I’ve learned haven’t just quantitatively increased my knowledge and thinking skills, but rather qualitatively changed the way I look at the world.
This may sound like some clichéd substanceless claim but I mean something very concrete by it. College qualitatively changed the way I think in one distinct and important way. It made me much more attentive to and motivated to properly evaluate the quality of evidence in any given situation and adjust my conclusions and inferences accordingly. This, as I see, is the critical skill needed to engage in clear thinking and rational deliberation. It is a pervasive flaw in our thinking – I think – that we often don’t match the strength of our conclusions to the quality of the evidence we have to support those conclusions. This happens in almost every conceivable context.
Avoiding this error or minimizing this tendency, although not often stated explicitly, has been a core underlying message in almost all the classes I’ve taken – especially those in the social science and statistics. It is implicit in judgments of the quality of my work in virtually everything essay I write, test I take and assignment I hand in. And I’m happy to say that it has become much more automatic that I look to tailor my conclusions to the quality of the available evidence after having three years of college under my belt – and that is not only in academic contexts, but in essentially every other area of my life as well. And of course I’m very glad for it! This is not to say I have become perfectly logical or immune to errors in judgment by any means.
I do think it is the particular thinking expected in academia that has made me much more attuned to the quality of available evidence. I have worked jobs in both government offices and private businesses where this skill was not nearly as valued – but would have been equally useful. This is not to say that there weren’t college graduates working there. But, perhaps the time away from school has caused a regression to less attention to evidence. I am grateful that time and time again I was forced to use evidence – not what I wanted to think or what might be true – to make judgments and hope that I do not revert back to lazier intellectual days.
The most extreme example of people being unable to match the quality of their evidence to the strength of their conclusions probably comes in the form of those people who are absolutely convinced of the existence of supernatural phenomena despite there being no compelling documentation of anything like ghosts, angels, UFO landings or the Loch Ness monster. A study (“Paranormal beliefs, education, and thinking styles”) by Kia Aarnio and Marjaana Lindeman in the journal Personality and Individual Differences showed that university students exhibited significantly less paranormal beliefs than vocational school students. This relationship was mediated by tendencies to engage in analytical thinking. Whether this is the result of more rigorous academics or self-selection may still be an open question – but it’s hard to believe that academic environment plays no role.
There is a second way in which college enriched me intellectually and changed the way I look at the world. It exposing me to disciplines, ideas, people and resources that I don’t think I would have otherwise encountered on my own – at least not to the same rich and fertile degree. For example, while some may detest having their curriculum chosen for them, I am glad that the more learnéd academics who decided my curriculum requirements forced me to take statistics. Being forced to take statistics changed me from someone who feared math coming out of high school into someone who realized math – and especially statistics – is interesting, insightful and essential to reasoning about the phenomena we observe in the world. Since then, I have taken many other statistics classes and learned the intricacies of multiple regression and model-building and will actually be helping teach statistics this coming fall.
Don’t be mistaken though. It’s not just statistics. Sociology of law forever changed my outlook on the law – and probably was one of the major influences that steered me away from going into law. A graduate class on negotiation showed me how various disciplines within the social sciences – economics, psychology and behavioral economists – can be integrated to influence behavior and help us make better decisions. And social psychology has exposed me to some of the most interesting questions about human nature that I want to devote my life to exploring.
College has improved my mind, but I think it’s also made me into a more mature and sophisticated person. Specifically, I think it has made me more open-minded, accommodating and genuinely interested in other people and what they have to say. This is not to say that those who haven’t gone to college lack these properties. But the change I’ve observed in myself happened, I think, because college has put me in so many interesting, diverse and rich situations with vibrant and engaging people. And this has both enabled and forced me to expand my social horizons, broadened the way I interact with people and expanded my aesthetic predilections. It isn’t just the races and ethnicities that are variegated – these people only look different – but the types of people, their vastly differing perspectives and motivations that have led me to question, challenge and change elements of my personality and character.
For example, college has given me the opportunity to: argue with people who now go to Harvard, Stanford, NYU, Colombia and UVA law schools, go on vacation with people studying math and theoretical physics, live next door to world-class soccer players, play basketball with aspiring doctors who went to Honduras to work as medical assistants, be a member of clubs with multiple entrepreneurs who have founded their own companies, take econ classes people who have personally worked with Ben Bernnake, debate people who were arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protests and joke around with people trekking to South America to organize laborers in an effort to improve working conditions.
And this is without even mentioning the professors who are almost always fascinating, lively and cultured people – as well as brilliant and deeply knowledgeable – with even more enthralling life experiences.
And here are just a few of the situations college has allowed me participate in: try mock trial cases in front of real judges and prosecutors, write for a newspaper that has a readership well over 15,000 people and conduct research with some of the leading psychologists in the world.
Lastly, in terms of personal justifications, it’s also worth noting that college has consumption value. Lectures, readings and discussions are often enjoyable in themselves. A wise man once said if you do what you love, you never have to work a day in your life. Well, if you study something you love, you never have to attend a day of class in your life, either.
When analyzing practical considerations, it was easier to compare alternatives. However, in evaluating these personal justifications, it is harder to know what the alternatives would have been. It is of course possible to get smarter, meet amazing people and having enriching experiences without going to college. But, given what I’ve been exposed to, it is hard for me to believe that I would have done so to an equal or greater degree without having gone to college.
Nationally, college grads also find college intellectually and socially gratifying
According to the Pew Research Center, only a little more than half of college graduates (55%) agree that college was very useful for preparing them for a job or career. However, 86% of college graduates agree that college was a good investment for them. What might account for this disparity between the percent of graduates who thought college was useful in preparing them for a job and the percent of them that think that college was a good investment? One explanation is that people also find college to be a good investment because of the enormous growth it can lead to both intellectually and socially. In fact, according to that same Pew study, 74% of college of graduates say that college was very useful in “increasing knowledge” and helping them “grow intellectually” and 69% agree that college was very useful in helping them “mature and grow as a person.”
Academic rigor: another serious problem
Of course, college is not some utopia where everyone is a brilliant and engaging person who is highly motivated to change to world. In fact, the motivations of those attending college is significantly less noble now than it once was. According to Derek Bok in his book Our Underachieving Colleges, from 1970 to just after 2000, the proportion of freshmen who ranked “being well off financially” as “essential” or “very important” rose drastically from 36.2% to 73.6%. While, in this time period, those ascribing the same importance to “acquiring a meaningful philosophy of life” declined from 79% to 39.6%.
Even worse though is the evidence emerging that many in college are not learning much – mostly, it seems, because they aren’t studying very hard. The most compelling and visible evidence I can think of comes from Richard Arum with Josipa Roksa in their book Academically Adrift.
An excellent summary of the book in the Chronicle of Higher Education shows that 45% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college, as measured by students’ performance on the college learning assessment (“designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other ‘higher level’ skills taught at college”). In fact, 36% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. While, those who did show improvement tended “to show only modest improvements.” A large reason for this trend, the authors argue, is due to a deficiency in effort on the part of students. For example, 32% of students don’t take any classes that have more than 40 pages of reading a week and about 50% aren’t in any class where they have to write more than 20 pages in the whole semester. Studying meanwhile is only allocated 12-14 hours per week (a lot of which is spent studying in groups).
It seems having a good time has for many become more important and learning less important. The social elements of college – partying, drinking, joining a fraternity/sorority – occupy an ever greater presence. And this, as a general trend, isn’t at odds with what I’ve seen at my school. Discussing Arum and Roksa’s book in the New York Times, Bob Herbert writes “students are hitting the books less and partying more. Easier courses and easier majors have become more and more popular. Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible.”
Some might see these as reasons to forego college altogether. However, the fact that there are a lot of unhealthy foods would not be a strong argument to stop eating. You would simply avoid the unhealthy options in favor of the healthy ones. And what Arum and Roksa admit is that “not just among institutions” but also “within institutions” there “is significant variation” – “with students in some academic programs regularly outperforming others at the same campuses.” Thus there are healthier academic environments than others. And of course you can select yourself into those that are healthier. For example, the authors demonstrated that those “majoring in liberal arts fields see ‘significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills over time than students in other fields of study.’” Furthermore, by changing your behavior, you can create a situation for yourself that is conducive to serious academic study. For example, Arum and Roksa present evidence that (1) “students who spend more time in fraternities and sororities show smaller gains than other students” and (2) “students who study by themselves for more hours each week gain more knowledge – while those who spend more time studying in peer groups see diminishing gains.” All of this is to say that by choosing the right environment and habits, there is still plenty of room to grow and develop your intellectual toolkit.
Uncollege and other bad ideas
So, on the whole, it seems pretty clear that college is worth it financially and can be incredibly enriching if you spend your time right. However, there are those who disagree.
Notable among them is Peter Thiel – the vociferous libertarian and billionaire entrepreneur who co-founded PayPal. According to a 9,000-word profile in the New Yorker, Thiel “believes that education is the next bubble in the U.S. economy. He has compared university administrators to subprime-mortgage brokers, and called debt-saddled graduates the last indentured workers in the developed world, unable to free themselves even through bankruptcy. Nowhere is the blind complacency of the establishment more evident than in its bovine attitude toward academic degrees: as long as my child goes to the right schools, upward mobility will continue. A university education has become a very expensive insurance policy—proof, Thiel argues, that true innovation has stalled.”
There may be some truth in this and to lure some of the best minds away from academia, he created the Thiel Fellowship in September 2010. The fellowship gives 20-30 people, under the age of twenty, $100,000 to abandon academia for 2 years and “focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.”
One of the winners of the Thiel fellowship is Dale J. Stephens – who was awarded a fellowship in 2011. His claim to fame is founding the UnCollege movement, which describes itself as existing for two reasons: (1) “to change the notion that university is the only path to success” and (2) “to help people to thrive in an ever changing world in which it is virtually impossible for educational institutions to adapt.” The former point is so obvious and at the same time so ambiguous as to almost not be worth stating. In formal terms it is equivalent to the statement that at least one person that has succeeded without going to college. This is clear. And the world is in fact replete with examples of people who did not follow the university path to success. Stephens mentions the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. However, this is altogether beside the point. The fact that people have succeeded without a college education is altogether unsurprising. There will always be people who are successful despite dropping out, happy despite hardship and tall despite malnourishment. The relevant question is about whether dropping out, hardship and malnourishment help on average – not whether there are a few extraordinary exceptions. Despite being a double below knee amputee, Oscar Pistorius competed as a sprinter in the 2012 Olympic games. Does that mean we should tell aspiring sprinters to cut off their legs? No. Of course not. And, by the way, according to Forbes, for every one person on the Forbes 400 list that doesn’t have a college degree, there are two that do.
By making statements like we aim to disprove the “notion that university is the only path to success,” people like Stephens can have the power of a (trivially correct) statement behind them, without having to tie themselves down to anything more concrete and meaningful. And why does the UnCollege movement not hitch itself to any claim that is more specific about the efficacy of not going to college? Because then the tacit implication of their movement – that on whole dropping out or not attending college really would be better – would have to become explicit. And this is something they can’t actually justify.
The UnCollege movement seems perfect to inspire the passions of angsty students who, frustrated by school, want to find a justification not to continue. People for whom foregoing college makes sense – for example, the people who have an idea for some brilliant tech start up or the likes of Steve Jobs and other silicon valley luminaries, who the movement implicitly pretends to be representing – of course have no need to follow the dictates of some gimmicky plan devised by someone with essentially no more life experience than them. Nevertheless, the UnCollege movement comes replete with an “UnCollege Manifesto” that you can request by email.
I requested one myself and found it littered with stylish enlarged quotes like “nothing that is worth knowing can be taught – Oscar Wilde.” Math, reading and cooking of course being excellent examples. (And interestingly enough, for an organization that seems to be attempting to align itself with the cutting-edge, not one of these quote is from someone who was born in the last hundred years.)
The “manifesto” reads like a vapid self-help book written by a twenty something year old – and that’s probably because that’s exactly what it is. “What’s the best part about UnCollege? The only prerequisite is life!” “You can have it all — the only things you’ll have to give up are the societal assumptions and expectations that serve as your comfort zone. Step outside that zone and you’ll be on your path to success!” Sagacious advice indeed. At other times, the manifesto even seems to advocate “deviating” just because it seems edgy and hip.
One of the focal points of the manifesto is the section where Stephens whips up “12 reasons why society thinks you should go to college” and then proceeds to debunk each of these reasons, usually in no more than a few snappy sentences. The reasons listed by Stephens for “why society thinks you should go to college” don’t actually seem founded in anything but Stephen’s arbitrary personal intuitions. For example, #1 on the list is “you get to party all night long.” Nevertheless, Stephens does touch on some of the main justifications for college attendance. However, the reasoning he uses to prove them incorrect is shoddy and his evidence sparse.
For example, Stephens mentions that one of the reasons “society thinks you should go to college” is “to learn from experts.” In response, he writes “experts don’t only come with Ph.Ds and reside in academic buildings. You can find experts to become your mentors and teachers outside the collegiate setting.” Well, that’s true. But let’s try this sentence: “People who know how to treat an infected wound don’t only come with medical degrees and reside in hospitals. You can find people who know how to treat an infected wound to heal you outside the medical setting.” Convinced that you shouldn’t go to a hospital next time your open gash becomes infected?
In response to the claim that you should go to college because “that’s how you succeed” Stephens writes “There are many paths to success – and many definitions of success. Society defines success in almost purely economic terms, but that shouldn’t be the case. Shouldn’t success include a measure of happiness?” I agree. And luckily, psychologists, economists and other social scientists have actually been studying happiness. Richard Florida, who by the way is a Professor at the University of Toronto, cites evidence that “happiness at the city or metro-level is more closely associated with human capital … the strongest correlation of any of the variables we looked at.” What does Florida mean by “human capital”? It is a metric measuring “the share of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher.” In other words, the greater the percentage of people that have a bachelor’s degree, the happier they are on average. This does not prove causation of course, but it’s certainly better evidence than that which Stephens cites – none.
The second part of the UnCollege movement’s raison d’être as I mentioned is “to help people to thrive in an ever changing world in which it is virtually impossible for educational institutions to adapt.” To this end, Stephens offers us another 12 steps in his manifesto – these are the “12 steps to self-directed lifelong learning.” Of course, not a single one of the 12 steps to is in conflict with attending college or anything you might do in college. The two are in no way incompatible.
Reading through the 12 proposed steps for lifelong learning, it appears like some marginally useful life advice rather than any serious intellectual alternative to college. Many of them are just examples of things that intelligent, curious individuals would do anyway – regardless of whether they attended college or not. For example #10, suggests “always ask ‘why?,’” while #1 advises “always carry a book, pen and paper” and #3 tells you to “keep a to-learn list.” Are these steps, or steps like #6 “set your homepage to Wikipedia:random,” really all you will need to become a more critical and analytical person? (By the way, isn’t college a good place to “surround yourself by people who are smarter than you” (#8 on the list)?)
Other advice is so grandiose and ambiguous as to be totally meaningless. At #12, Stephens instructs us to make sure to “become an expert” and at #4 Stephens tells us to “start something — a website, company, organization, movement.” Why not tack on “make yourself smarter,” “become a genius” and “get super rich” as numbers 13, 14 and 15? However, Stephens will make sure to address these larger steps in “subsequent manifestos, blog posts, and [his] upcoming book.” But, don’t worry, in Stephen’s own words: “I do not want to sell you anything.”
The only thing that the UnCollege movement gets right is that college isn’t for everyone. And we already knew this. For most of us, it’s worth it.
About the Author:
Sebastian is a senior at Cornell University. He is planning on attending graduate school in social psychology. He likes reading, writing, empiricism and not taking himself too seriously.