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What is the Purpose of a College Education?

How will we know if a College Education is “worth it?”

Many questions are being raised about whether it “pays” to spend four or five years getting a college education. The answer always seem to focus on the return on investment concept. In other words would a college student paying $100,000 in tuition earn enough during his or her lifetime to justify the high cost. The problem is this is the wrong question to ask about the value of a college education. The true value of a college education, and one that can’t be reduced to dollars and cents, is for students to have the freedom to explore who they are and what they want to become in a non-judgmental environment. It is to develop creative thinking processes through independent thought and analysis by challenging conventional wisdom and finding a way to better society.

First, let me dispense with the utilitarian approach to evaluating the net benefits of a college education. According to a new paper by Federal Reserve Bank of New York economists Jaison Abel and Richard Deitz, the rate of return for a bachelor's degree has been hovering around 14% to 15% since 2000, "easily surpassing the threshold for a sound investment."

How did they calculate that ROI? They factored in two key things: the cost of an undergraduate education and the wages college grads can expect to earn relative to the wages of mere high school grads, up until they retire around age 65. The fate of workers with less than a college education is deteriorating even more rapidly than the fate of their college-educated peers. Thus, students are forced to choose the lesser of two evils: pay the high price to go to college -- possibly incurring an enormous amount of student loan debt -- or earn far less over a lifetime and face a greater likelihood of being unemployed for long periods. In that tradeoff, college still wins.

This utilitarian approach is flawed because we can’t quantify the benefits of developing independent thinking, creative decision-making, and, I would add from my own experiences, the ability to reason through ethical dilemmas that young people will face during their lifetimes and professional careers. How can we possibly measure the benefits of receiving a college education that enables a person to be a contributing member of society? How can we assess the costs of failing to do so because a college education is not designed to develop these skills?

I recently read an excellent book on the true purpose of a college education and how today’s universities are failing miserably because they focus on developing career skills that lead to a high-paying job, which is the classic utilitarian analysis. In Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz slams the Ivy League schools and other research universities for failing to deliver on the true purpose of a college education that can only be achieved through a liberal arts education and not one geared to helping students get a job and developing the practical technical skills that inform their chosen careers.

I agree with Deresiewicz that college should help to furnish the tools so essential to engaging in the work of self-discovery in a judgment-free environment informed by the give-and-take of true college discourse. College should make students question everything they thought they knew about themselves. College should help students to develop the habit of reflective thought, which means the capacity for change.

The one area where I disagree with Deresiewicz is in his criticism of Amy Chua who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. In that book Chua explores the overly-strict, end-purpose-oriented Asian parenting style that pushes and then pushes their kids some more to be high achievers, to earn all “A” grades (or A+ if available), to spend their college years studying and then studying some more. Asian kids are taught to be one-dimensional in college and the preparation leading up to it because the purpose of college is achievement at the highest level; to push oneself to the limit; to excel for the sake of excelling; to be the very best at whatever they do.

Frankly, I see nothing wrong with Chua’s thesis, perhaps because my own college education was built on these same values. I believe that the hard work and dedication to a cause that Deresiewicz criticizes in Chua enabled me to develop a work ethic and sense of responsibility and accountability that is missing from today’s society and, from a practical perspective, it has changed the dynamics in this country from a can-do mentality to a don’t care if I do mentality. How else can we explain what went on in the Secret Service’s failure in its mission to protect the President and the first family? How else can we explain the failure of the Veteran’s Administration to take care of those who put themselves in harm’s way for this country? How else can we explain the incompetence of the Internal Revenue Service in targeting certain groups unfairly?

In the end it is a blend of skills that leads to a healthy, self-fulfilling college experience. We need to focus more on the traditional values of a liberal arts education but we also need to develop a work ethic. We need to incorporate an ability to think critically and ethically when encountering new and challenging problems in our life. These are the lifetime skills so essential to true happiness. These are the skills of a true leader and leadership is what is missing in all aspects of society.

I do agree with Deresiewicz that “The only real grade is this: how well you’ve lived your life.” Like most things, the way you do it is what is most important. It’s the quality of the journal that is most important.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on October 7, 2014. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: