With the cost of a 4-year college education skyrocketing, and the incomes of American families stagnating and declining, the value of higher education has been called into question. Since a bachelor's degree often does little to improve one's prospects on the job market these days, many analysts and commentators argue that prospective students would actually be better off making the leap directly into the workforce, rather than spending thousands of dollars pursuing an education that may or may not give them any long-run financial benefit. College, the argument goes, is no longer worth the cost.
This is a depressingly shallow perspective.
It is true that in today's America, the monetary value of a college education is debatable—particularly if one majors in the humanities or liberal arts. Employers are looking for candidates with "hard skills," the kind that graduates who lack specialized technical or business training often do not possess. Employers are also looking for experience, which almost no graduates posses. Many newly minted grads have detailed knowledge of the historical events leading up to the American Revolution, or are well-versed in the social inequities that inspired A Tale of Two Cities—but can they make rapid calculations in Microsoft Excel? Even better, do they have three to five years' experience making rapid calculations in Microsoft Excel, while answering a telephone? If not, sorry—their degree is deemed to be all but worthless in the "real world."
Or is it?
Decades of research have proven that the value of a college education goes far beyond the acquisition of "hard skills" and the increase in lifetime earning capacity. Higher learning may or may not always guarantee fatter paycheck. On the other hand, it does turn the people earning those paychecks into much more intellectual, engaged, and compassionate members of society than they would be otherwise.
For example: As a group, people with a college education are more supportive of the right to free speech and public assembly, even if they personally disagree with the positions of the speakers. They are more accepting of the idea of a female president, as well as being more committed to gender equality in general. They consume more news, and as a result are more informed about current events. They are more knowledgeable about the political process. They are less approving of the use of violence to achieve political and social ends, by governments and citizen groups alike.
Speaking of politics, they are more skilled at articulating and defending their political beliefs in sophisticated and factually sound ways, rather than resorting to half-baked sound bites and unsupported "gut feelings" to back up their positions. They are more likely to vote and be politically active in general. They are more ideologically consistent, meaning they are less likely to be swayed or duped by the disingenuous spin and outright lies that dominate today's cable news outlets and anonymous Internet forums. And they are less supportive of both authoritarianism and dogmatic thinking.
As for personal values, college-educated Americans are more aware of the needs, perspectives, and feelings of others. They are more willing to associate with and befriend people outside their own ethnic group. They are more altruistic. They are also less self-centered, less racist, and less homophobic.
The list of virtues goes on and on. Today's 22 year-olds with bachelor's degrees may or may not make significantly more money during their career than the 22 year-olds without them—time will tell. That said, they will almost certainly be more informed, engaged, and responsible citizens. Which is better for the future of our country: an educated burger-flipper, or an ignorant one? Keep in mind that, at some point, both are likely to have children.
Those who reduce the value of college to a dollar amount are doing the country a grave disservice. Yes, in the "real world" you have to use Excel often than you have to quote Shakespeare or write term papers on the dynamics of nuclear deterrence. But you also vote in the "real world," live alongside other people in the "real world," resolve disputes in the "real world," and act as a role model for your kids in the "real world."
Yes, money is important—in the end, it does make the world go âround. You can't quote Shakespeare if you starve. However, even if a college degree did not guarantee the average graduate a single extra dime, there can be no doubt about its ultimate worth to both the graduate and society. If everybody went to college, the financial benefit of a college education would absolutely decrease. At the same time, though, America would likely be much smarter, more tolerant, and more peaceful. Those values will never show up on a spreadsheet, but it takes a shallow mind to argue they are not "worth it."
Kevin Wolfman is a teacher and holds a Masters degree in political science from the University of California at Davis. He is currently writing a book about the relationship between higher education and political beliefs. Follow him on Twitter at @kevinwolfman.
Antonio, Anthony Lising; Chang, Mitchell J.; Hakuta, Kenji; Kenny, David A.; Levin, Shana; and Milem, Jeffrey F. 2004. "Effects of Racial Diversity on Complex Thinking in College Students." Psychological Science 15(8): 507-510.
Bobo, L., and Licari, F.C. 1989. "Education and political tolerance: Testing the effects of cognitive sophistication and target group affect." Public Opinion Quarterly 53: 285-308.
Edelstein, Alex. 1962. "Since Bennington: Evidence of Change in Student Political Behavior." Public Opinion Quarterly 26(4): 564-577.
Hall, Robert; Rodeghier, Mark; and Useem, Brett. 1986. "Effects of education on attitude to protest." American Sociological Review 51: 564-573.
Hello, Evelyn; Scheepers, Peer; Vermulst, Ad; and Gerris, Jan R.M. 2004. "Association between Educational Attainment and Ethnic Distance in Young Adults: Socialization by Schools or Parents?" Acta Sociologica47(3): 253-275.
Schreiber, E.M. 1978. "Education and change in American opinions on a woman for president." Public Opinion Quarterly 42: 171-182.
Pascarella, E.T., and Terenzini, P.T. How College Affects Students, Volume 2: A Third Decade of Research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005.