05 May 2008

College may be Expensive, but it's Still Valuable

On this week's edition of Radio Boston, the topic was the (un)affordability of college. Many good points were raised, but one guest said a few things that really raised my hackles (unfortunately, I came in in the middle and didn't catch who it was).

First, he practically called a college degree irrelevant, citing the fact that so many Fortune 500 CEOs either never graduated from or never even attended college or university. This is such a misleading use of statistics. Sure, these exceptional men had the ambition and vision and intelligence to make tremendous successes of themselves without the aid of formal eductaion. However, this does not apply to most of us. Most people who do not attend or graduate from college earn about $30,000 a year, while Bachelors holders average around $50,000. And though a remarkably high percentage of these high-powered businessmen did not attain a college degree, a remarkably low percentage of those without a college education ever reach anywhere close to such heights of success.

Someone piped up about what a shame it was that trade school education was in decline, and I think this is another case entirely and often does hold more value than a liberal arts or university degree.

The second statement he made that I think is a lie, doing a disservice to a lot of young people, is that it doesn't matter if you attend a "name brand" school, that's just marketing hype. As the adage goes, it's not where you go, but what you do when you get there. Well, sort of. I think this is important to keep in mind in terms of gracefully accepting what you can't change, but it's only true to a point. Again, exceptional people will excell no matter what, but elite colleges provide students with so much more than academics. Alumni networks alone can make a world of difference, not to mention all the enhanced extracurricular activities a fat endowment can provide.

This may come out sounding like a fairly elitist post, but it really isn't. I realize that the economy is only getting worse and only a very small portion of the population (many, thanks to the advanatage of a family name and an elite prep school training) are fortunate enough to be able to attend the top schools. I think being realistic is important. However, I think it's also important to continue to push people to get as much of the best education they can. Both these statements come from a kernel of truth and the desire to soften a sometimes harsh reality. But it seemed to me that, in this context, these statments (especially taken together) are mutating into some sort of common wisdom that higher education is no longer important. That is outright false and harmful.