Value of a college education

Posted: 2 October 2015 in Uncategorized


The escalation of college costs—for both private and public institutions—has provoked a proliferation of college rankings based on post-graduate earnings. So, for example, there’s College Scorecard (by salary after attending), Brookings (value-added ranking), PayScale (mid-career pay), and others.

All of them are attempts to measure the extent to which, as students and their families are being forced to have the freedom to pay more in tuition and to take on increasing amounts of debt, is it all worth it?

That is, what is the value of a college education?

This issue came up yesterday in class, as I was discussing the difference between the use-value and exchange-value of commodities. I asked the students how they and their fellow students saw their purchase of the college commodity: was it to become better educated or to invest in themselves to increase their earnings after college?

In the latter case, the idea is to buy (the college commodity) in order to sell (their ability to work, to some employer later on)—with the goal of earning more than they paid to the college or university they attended (discounted, of course, by the earnings foregone while studying). From that perspective, the earnings-based rankings matter a great deal.

In the former case, the goal is a bit different: the focus is on learning how to think, and the various ways their education benefits not only themselves, but society as a whole.

Those are very different ways of thinking about the use-value of a college education.

The problem is, as college costs go up, it is increasingly difficult to sustain the focus on learning how to think as against buying in order to sell. There’s more and more pressure on students and their families to be able to prove that the more they spend on college the more they are “worth” when they graduate. And that, as it turns out, is very difficult.

As James B. Stewart explains,

The bottom line is that no ranking system or formula can really answer the question of what college a student should attend. Getting into a highly selective, top-ranked college may confer bragging rights, status and connections, but it doesn’t necessarily contribute to a good education or lifelong success, financial or otherwise.

Of course, the only way to put the focus back on college as learning (to the benefit of both individuals and society as a whole) is to rein in college costs and to expand access to affordable, high-equality public education.

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