Education: Both overvalued and the Great Equalizer

I love political talk by my friends on Facebook (Even though posting a political rant on Facebook automatically makes you a moron regardless of the comment’s truth or idiocy). Facebook is a great moderately good way to check the pulse of a community. Recently, a guy that I often agree with, has been posting increasingly more political “junk” onto the web. This was a comment that I read and thought would provide an interesting discussion.

Education: Both overvalued and the Great Equalizer
Instead of diving into whether I think Andrew was right or wrong in his comment (which I fully expect you to do in the comments!) the more important issue at hand is the overarching problem with the current system and value attributed to higher education.

First off, education is perhaps the most important thing to all of society. It truly is the great equalizer, the great distinguishes of ignorance, and perhaps the quickest way to end violence and poverty in a society. People have fault and died for the opportunity to learn. That is undeniable.

However, what is education? Is the same education necessary for everyone in all walks of life? Does everyone need, want, deserve, or survive the typical college education? We all know the answer is no. There are multiple ways to educate oneself. There are trade schools, technical schools, skills passed down from one artisan to another, self taught geniuses and others. Perhaps the biggest problem is our overvaluing of the 4 year college degree and the under-valuing means of alternate education routes.

The Education Bubble
Right now we are experiencing with education the exact same thing we experience with the housing market – a bubble. Prices of a higher education are steadily climbing, demand has never been higher, the Government keeps prices artificially low via subsidies and grants, and in turn Universities will keep jacking prices up as long as people will pay. That is how it works. Soon this education bubble will pop.

Recently, when I visited Japan, I was astounded by how educated the entire population was. I was refreshing and I loved it; however, I was equally astounded at the competition for jobs. One women I met, who had a masters degree and spoke 5 languages, was passed up for a customer support position at the airport.

The problem: EVERYONE had an expensive college education, but trade schools were not valued. Almost all “menial” tasks and labor positions were outsourced. Electricians, maids, janitors, etc. were almost exclusively foreigners. I think this pressure to succeed with such competition in Japan is a result many poles show Japan as having a lower quality of life and statistically higher suicide rates.

Soon a college education becomes essentially valueless in the marketplace and the only thing you are left with is a lot of debt without the skills your marketplace is demanding all because of the perceived value of a degree.

Government and Education
I have a love/hate relationship with the Government and education. First off, I have to admit that I myself benefited from tax dollars. I received the Pell Grant and used every penny of it being as productive as possible. In return, I got an excellent job and I have currently paid a ton of tax dollars (far exceeding the amount the Government gave me). So I guess I was a good investment.

On the other hand, I have a cousin who received the same grant and pissed it away. He literally spent the money on beer and a new truck. He doesn’t have a degree – a bad investment for the Government.

The one thing the Government does is drive the price of education up AND give poor kids the opportunity to receive an education. I can’t decide if the Government is a good thing or bad thing – where is the balance? My instincts say that the Government should stay out of it and let the market and private organizations find a way. I would have went to college without Government help, my cousin would not have.

For example, in Georgia we have the Hope Scholarship. Every student with a 3.0 GPA receives a scholarship paid for by income generated by the Georgia lottery – NOT tax payers. I think that is a great system.

1. We overvalue the traditional 4 year degree and undervalue trade and technical schools.
2. We incorrectly assume that EVERYONE wants, needs, or can handle a traditional 4 year college degree.
3. The Government subsidies education to such a point that it become a bad investment and by increasing demand increases the cost of a college education for everyone.
4. Education can be funded without the help of the Government. Often more fairly and more efficiently.
5. Education is the cornerstone to society.

5 thoughts on “Education: Both overvalued and the Great Equalizer

  1. jon

    A.F., there’s so much interesting here, and I can’t answer even one of the questions you raised. Each and every one is a difficult one.

    I can speak from my own life, and tell you how I feel about it. I was a professor at Columbia University and then at Boston College. Both were great places, but both very high tuition. There were of course students on scholarships, financial aid, etc., but overall the mean family income of the students attending was very high (probably similarly high at both). I left Boston College to teach at City College of New York (i missed living in nyc and the CCNY job was hiring someone in my area of psychology/neuroscience). The students at CCNY come from families with average income of less than $30,000 a year — most are the first from their families to go to college. It’s publicly funded – the tuition is feel lucky to be a part of it. The tuition has recently gone up to about $5500 per year ($2750 per semester). I’m glad CCNY exists. Maybe a completely private system would have schools affordable for those who were born poor, but I’m not so sure. CCNY isn’t the best university in the world, but it’s pretty damned good. It’s funded by the state of NY. I’m all for it.

    1. Atticus Finch

      If it wasn’t for public school I certainly wouldn’t be here today – there is almost no doubt about that. I tend to think education is a great investment, but I wonder if society is putting an unfair weight on the traditional 4 year degree vs. schooling that may be more appropriate for different people (such as trade or technical school).

      I imagine teaching at a few high quality schools you have seen some of the most deserving kids and hard workers come through – there is no disputing they exist (I would like to think I was one of them, maybe), but on the other end of the spectrum there are schools that are almost “just sign up”.

      For example there is a small college near my home town where most of the people from my high school went. The education is notoriously low quality and probably half of the people that accept government money to go there never graduate. I wonder if they were given a different opportunity or pushed in a more reasonable direction (tech/trade school) if they would have been more successful (and debt free).

      I certainly think those options for a good education need to be available. I am thankful everyday a guy like me from a poor family had the opportunity to receive an education that put me in a position in life to, socially and economically, go higher than the level in which I was born.

  2. jon

    I think you’re right – that we devalue trade/technical schools, and it’s not right. Not only might some people benefit more from that, but they oughtn’t feel like they settled for 2nd best by doing so.

    In terms of the low graduation rate problem, CCNY has that problem too – it’s a crazy low graduation rate. But some of the students are working full time jobs in addition to going to school; some are trying to raise kids while going to school, and maybe some are just not that serious or disciplined.

    This is a great post, and I’m going to give the topic more thought.

  3. galudwig

    Great post. I tend to agree with Andrew. College is good for some, bad for others. I was raised in a country where almost everyone goes to college, and it is almost entirely paid for by the government.

    I went and had a blast and so did almost everyone I knew. But here I am now, six years and two degrees later, without any prospect of finding a decent entry-level job related to my diplomas. Many times I’ve wished I’d just never gone.

    I recently registered as self-employed and am doing freelance writing work just so I can work below minimum wage because my only legal alternative was working at fast food restaurants. Considering the millions of other Europeans in my situation, I shudder when I think about what’s going to happen in the near future

    I think back about my ‘college education’ and remember only the parties. I feel I got nothing of real value there and wasted my time when I desperately needed real-world experience.

    As for solutions, I know the system in my native country is broken, virtually beyond repair. I don’t know how to solve it. But getting the state out would be a good step as then at the very least the costs of all this wasted time would be more clear and university education would be more geared toward actually finding a job..

    1. Atticus Finch Post author

      Well said. The US is headed in that same direction it seems. I’m curious to see what happens with the “education bubble” and even further what happens with the Universal Healthcare situation…


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