I keep seeing news stories that ask whether a college education is worth the cost. If college is a higher level trade school, the question is appropriate. If we assume that it takes about four years to get a college degree, then we can ask if one can make enough additional money over a career to offset the total cost of four years of college tuition, books and living expenses, lost earnings during those four years and the cost of interest on any student loans required to get through those four years. But is that what it’s about?
Maybe I should stop right there. Posing the question may be enough. Those who think that education is about earnings potential will not change their minds. In my own education, where I was subjected to the Jesuits’ ratio studiorum, I’m sure I upgraded my abilities to organize my thoughts and to write and speak about them, and in the history courses I took for my major, I learned a great deal about government and politics. These things became the substance of my working life as a naval officer, civil servant and Foreign Service officer. The cost of my education was the best investment I ever made in financial terms, so I can say “yes,” paying for a college education was worth it even on the terms suggested in the news stories referred to above, because much of what I studied contributed to my earnings potential. (Full disclosure: the Navy paid the bulk of my college expenses in return for a commitment to three years of active duty, but that only made the investment of my time and my own money even more profitable).
If the purpose of our lives is to earn enough to feed and house ourselves and produce our eventual replacements, then it might be appropriate to calculate the monetary value of a college education, but I can’t live with that. What about literature and philosophy and music and the other arts and all those long conversations far into the night with classmates questioning what we heard in class and anything and everything each of us found in our own reading? College is about ideas, about learning to think and evaluate the world around us, about realizing our full potential as human beings. My life has been so much richer because I was exposed to the world of ideas. I cannot imagine living without the foundation of knowledge I acquired in college and continued to build on right up to today.