Is college worth it?

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About 1,300 students will be graduating from UCCS today, so it seems like an opportune time to once again question whether higher education is worth the money?

Let’s take a look at some statistics.

A National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education study showed 57 percent of the 2,142 Americans surveyed claimed that the nation’s higher education system does not offer adequate value in return for increasingly high costs, and 75 percent feel it is unaffordable for the average citizen.

Graduating students owe about $1 trillion, more than all the mortgages and credit card debt combined. Colorado is ranked 49th in the nation in per-capita support for higher education. The CU system receives about 5 percent of its budget from the state.

Tuition is rising annually to accommodate more students — at UCCS enrollment has tripled in the past 20 years — and a dismal labor market awaits them — less than half will be employed including unpaid internships. So, why bother?

According to the Pew Research Center, “the typical adult with a bachelor’s degree (but no further education) will earn $1.42 million over a 40-year career, compared with $770,000 for a typical high school graduate. “ Is the $650,000 difference worth the $18,704 investment at UCCS?

The obvious answer tells only a fraction of the story. Presumably, UCCS graduates would also have 40 years of a more fulfilling job, even a career where their contributions are better appreciated. Can you quantify that?

A study from the University of Maryland found that “the rate of breakups within 10 years of marriage dropped by one-third among college-educated women while remaining stable among less-educated women.”

The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that “about 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates, almost 59 percent of federal inmates, and 69 percent of jail inmates did not complete high school.” Outside of high-profile white-collar crime of Wall Street insiders, college-educated citizens are less likely to end in prison.

A study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute suggests that “the relative health of people in more than 3,000 U.S. counties showed that those with more college-educated residents had fewer premature deaths and fewer reports of being in poor or fair health.” Need we continue?

There are many reasons why college education is good for the individual and for the nation as a whole. So, why is there persistence in criticizing college-bound students? What is it about college itself that irks so many?

Congressional wrangling over rate increases for some student loans is useful for political demagoguery but unimportant compared to other changes to Pell Grant qualification, for example. And all of this pales in comparison to European policies of subsidized higher education for their best students.

The issue then isn’t money as such but ideology: who should pay for college education? Should it be a personal investment? Should the state pay for college education? Or should it only guarantee student loans?

Let’s do some math: a B-2 “spirit” bomber costs around $2.2 billion. Annual tuition at UCCS is $4,676. If we skipped buying one such bomber, 470,487 students could spend one year there, or 117,621 students could complete their entire 4-year education.

But how can you mix national security with education? In an age of drone-attacks and “smart bombs,” college-educated soldiers are more important than ever before. Our national security will always depend on smart people rather than raw physical strength. Even the Greeks figured this out, ensuring a healthy mind in a healthy warrior’s body.

Instead of thinking about higher education in terms of skill-acquisition or content accumulation, we need to appreciate our ability to think critically, to assess data collections, and to navigate a new era of digital information that may not resemble anything we have known in the past.

This is true not only for computer geeks and nerds whose genius surpasses the average student — they can skip college, but for the rest of us whose curiosity can be challenged at the university — those who slept through their high-school education.

Since no one wants to close K-12 education, we should remember that teachers are college-educated, and therefore the better their education the better the education of their young students. And what about having better-informed citizens?

Even if everyone agrees to keep higher education and subsidize it, the question still remains: can it be done more efficiently? Can’t it all be transmitted via the Internet?

This may be true for content transmission, even skill-acquisition, but what about education? As more studies show our social misbehavior in the virtual reality of social media, such as Facebook, leading in extreme cases to suicide, we need to socialize our youth to read body language and social cues.

Classroom experiences are about brain-storming and interactive critical thinking. Especially in the Digital Age, we need more of this training rather than less.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com