Is it worth going to college?

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As college graduation season is upon us, and we consider the cost of college education — from $60,000 to $250,000, depending on whether it’s private or public, with or without room and board, with or without travel expense for holidays, with or without books ($4,000 on the low side) — it may be worth listening to the so-called experts.

Some argue that college education is necessary because high schools are failing their students — some 30 percent of graduating seniors cannot read or write at their expected level, not to mention having mathematical competency to give change without consulting the cash register.

This, of course, is a sad commentary on the state of high schools in America and the No Child Left Behind legacy of the past. Current administrations are apparently not helping much. It’s also a sad statement about college-level education that remedial training is expected. Incoming students fail calculus and cannot construct grammatically correct sentences (not to mention spelling that they expect their “spell-check” application to pick up — just like the cash register that calculates the change from one dollar).

Then there are those who claim that college education is worthless, almost.

There are two camps in this other extreme of the judgment spectrum. The first group, like researchers from New York University and the University of Virginia, claim that students cruise through college without learning enough, that they read relatively little (32 percent read less than 40 pages per week per course), they write even less (50 percent write less than 20 pages in a course per semester), and they study less than 12 hours per week for all their semester courses. In short, college for a great percentage of students is a free-ride and a four-year-long vacation subsidized by willing and uninformed parents or by Pell Grants and loans that are somehow directly subsidized or indirectly guaranteed by the American taxpayer. If students don’t care to be educated, why should they go to college?

The second group claims that college is not simply a waste of time and money, but that in fact it’s a detriment to intellectual and innovative success. One recent representative of this group is not other than Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Pay-Pal, an early investor in Facebook, and a great entrepreneur/investor whose wealth continues to balloon.

To put his claim to the test, he has launched his “20 under 20” fellowship which gives out $100,000 grants to young people over two years who are willing to drop out of college and have an idea or innovation they’d like to pursue. For him, college education is an excuse not to think about the future, and a loss of time. He also admits that there is the awful possibility that an ingenious student may invent something worthwhile and have to worry about intellectual property rights and potential loss of revenue.

Between these two extremes, some common sense must prevail.

Yes, higher education may be expensive, but it’s an investment and not a paid vacation. Given that we don’t have a reasonable national transition between high-school and the “real world” of commerce — we don’t have mandatory national service, such as the military. It’s a time when young adults may move out of their parents’ house or tutelage (in case they stay at home), and begin to fend for themselves.

Their environment changes — they have to deal with food and travel, dorms and other students, their financial changes — Mom and/or Dad are not there all the time, their academic performance — professors don’t care about their athletic commitments or personal issues, and the like. These changes combine to a maturation process we hope leads to independence!

If we ask ourselves what higher education is really all about, let’s say for a minute just from the perspective of the business world, here are some interesting answers that neither extremes consider.

First, college educated students are more likely to be disciplined. No matter how many times they fudged a test or wrote their term-paper the night before it was due, they did complete four years of required courses and paper and tests.

Second, however poorly they may have done academically, they learned how to manage their time and effort.

Third, no matter what their major, they must have been able to communicate and interact with a variety of different people and egos, from fellow students to professors.

Fourth, they inadvertently had some crisis or drama to deal with during their college years — death of a family member or parents’ divorce or financial hardship — and figured out how to cope.

Fifth, as their academic career progressed, they have learned to choose and calculate what are the risks and benefits of taking this rather than that course so as to maximize the rewards of their work.

One can continue in this vein for a while, but the picture becomes quite clear: higher education inculcates certain life-long skills that may be learned elsewhere, of course, but that are also learned and reinforced during one’s college career.

If I had my choice, I’d hire a college-educated young man or woman because they have already proven something: their own worth, their sense of self and self-confidence, perhaps even some skill-set I can use. Overall, they proved their commitment and resilience, their hard work and dedication to complete a task and a goal, and if I asked them to work late into the night, they’d know exactly what pizza can be delivered…

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and doesn’t only hire college graduates.