It actually makes me cringe when I hear discussions questioning whether a college education is worth the expense. Yes, college loans carried by students after they graduate are astronomical and unprecedented. The average student loan debt for the Class of 2016, for example, is $37,172, up 6 percent from the preceding year. Americans owe, in total, more than $1.48 trillion in student loans spread out over 44 million borrowers, more than the $620 billion owed on credit cards, according to figures obtained from the Student Loan Hero website. Average monthly student loan repayment after graduation, for borrowers 20 to 30 years of age, is $351.
Those are, of course, mammoth numbers that are hard to conceive. But how about this for comparison: Mortgage debt is $8.8 trillion. You can move out of a house, but you only have one head. And what you fill that head with can determine the quality of the rest of your life. Your house may contain your financial equity, but your knowledge base and critical thinking make up your life’s equity.
I know the stories about the college dropouts who become billionaires. Good for them, they don’t have to worry about money. But that is part of the point I am trying to make. Education is not only about money, about the job you will hold or the amount of toys you will own by the time you die. Education is partially about income, as statistics prove. College grads earn more in the course of their lives than high school grads. And while today’s auto mechanic, who goes to a vocational school and who is really a kind of computer engineer can earn as much, perhaps, as a doctor or lawyer, money is not the only value in life. Satisfaction, a key ingredient of happiness, is another.
So what do you get from a college education? Is it worth the price?
First let’s talk about price. In the United States, where education is viewed as the ladder to success, a traditional college education at a fine college has always been ranked at the top of the pyramid. Those schools are also the most expensive because they are mainly private. There are various scholarships to help, but for most without adequate resources those schools can be out of reach. Then there are public universities, many of which are exemplary and much cheaper, particularly if you live in state. And three cheers for the two-year community colleges that can carry you halfway to a college degree with truly minimum expense. There are also work-study schools that may take longer to graduate from, but who is holding a stopwatch on your life?
Anyway, what you get out of college is directly proportional to what you put in. Like the computer expression, it’s garbage in, garbage out. So what is the bottom line here? What can you expect to get out of a good, traditional college?
For starters, there is knowledge, knowledge about almost everything known to humans at the time you
attend. It’s there for the asking, assuming there is room for you to enroll in the classes of your choice. And if you go on to college reasonably soon after you graduate from high school, you can focus on acquiring the knowledge of your choice without the responsibilities of a spouse, a car, a house, children, a dog and making a living. In college, you have a roof over your head, your meals are prepared and the lawn is mowed for you. The knowledge you choose to acquire may or may not turn out to be directly applicable to the work that you eventually do, but it will certainly contribute to your understanding of your world — scientifically, culturally, historically, economically, politically, and that will give you profound satisfaction. If your job depends on what you know rather than how much you can lift, knowledge will extend your work life, at the senior end when those whose bodies can no longer respond to physical tasks may face uncertain “golden years.”
Learning, of course, doesn’t depend on or stop with a college education. But appreciation for the value of knowledge grows as we age. Boy, how I wish I could live again those college years. Now I would know why I was there.