Illustration of college value: Increasing stacks of coins with tallest one "wearing" a graduation cap.


Faculty Essay: What is the value of a college education?



By Justin D. Klassen, Ph.D.

Going to college in the United States is expensive, not only because many universities have taken on extraneous expenses, but because a significant portion of the overall cost of education is borne directly by individual students and their families. One consequence of this arrangement is that higher education functions as a luxury rather than an equally accessible public good. Another is that even those who can afford an education are tempted to measure its value in reductive ways.

On the one hand, this is understandable. If a degree is going to deplete my bank account so drastically, then it had better pay me back, pronto. There is a compelling clarity to this logic, which is why some commentators and elected officials suggest that a university’s only legitimate role in society is to provide focused training attached to guaranteed employment. The same voices dismiss the value of learning that does not fit into this tidy equation, e.g., disciplines and programs that do not align directly with specific job qualifications in trending industries. Many college administrators seem to be persuaded, given the trend of cutting traditional liberal arts majors while emphasizing “degrees that pay.”

"The issue isn’t that asking a university for specialized training in a marketable major is asking too much. The truth is we should demand a lot more."

Unfortunately, this understandable response to the high cost of a degree is also self-defeating. That is to say, the more we discredit the intrinsic and transformative value of education, beyond its credentialing function, the less it will appear worthy of additional public investment. It is certainly fair to ask what a degree is worth, as many prospective students and their parents do every spring. But there are better ways to answer the question. 

We ought to begin by reminding ourselves that anyone who promises a clear path to a guaranteed future return is lying. The world has never been that simple, and its complexity is even more pronounced in today’s economy. Many students who are presently in college will get jobs in fields that did not even exist when they began their degrees. Most of them can expect to have several different careers over the course of their lives. So the issue isn’t that asking a university for specialized training in a marketable major is asking too much. The truth is we should demand a lot more. 

Contrary to the popular consensus, the real and lasting value of a college education in a complex and dynamic world is and always has been rooted in the adaptability of broad, interdisciplinary learning. Narrow training prepares us well for success in domains where we can expect predictable repetition. These domains exist, but they are relatively rare. For the most part, life comes at us without barriers against uncertainty or moral complexity. This is not to say that life is sinister, just that it is too wild and wonderful for any single lens to capture. To live well in such a world takes more than training. It requires an openness to learning for its own sake.

David Epstein’s recent book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, offers illuminating examples of people who flourish in life and work precisely because they are open to learning beyond a single domain. They know that in an unpredictable world, you can’t decide beforehand what is worth knowing and what isn’t, and that worthwhile discoveries often arise from unexpected connections across disciplines. No wonder, then, he writes, that “compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer.”

We often hear that we can either treat education as a means to a lucrative credential, or we can learn for the sake of learning and end up overeducated and aimless. These Nobel laureates—and many others, including a surprising number of CEOs with liberal arts degrees—show us that the truth is nearly the other way around. They succeed not in spite of their breadth, but because of it. 

It is precisely when we value education intrinsically that it becomes the most useful tool—no mere expiring credential, but a lifelong practice of being flexible, inquisitive and morally discerning in a complex and ever-changing world. This is why many colleges require students in any major to learn subjects like ethics, literature and religion, along with social and natural sciences—not because they don’t care enough about their students’ success, but because they see them as full human persons, who like all of us are called to live wisely and well in community with others. 

Let us therefore abandon the cynicism that would force us to choose between learning for its own sake and learning for success. The real world throws curve balls, both in terms of market needs and in terms of unexpected life events. That world needs the kind of people who can face inevitable uncertainty with creativity and moral imagination, who can approach complex problems like climate change with both scientific literacy and spiritual sensitivity. More than docile workers, we need people who can navigate all manner of relationships with a working knowledge of human psychology and a few cherished examples from art and literature of the transcendent joys of friendship.

And employers need them too. Younger business leaders especially say that creative thinking, empathy, leadership and civic engagement are very important skills in college graduates. They need people, in short, who are not just well trained but “good at being human” (Herbert McCabe). That’s the real ticket to thriving in work and life, and it is also the real promise of a college education. Don’t ask for anything less.

Dr. Justin D. Klassen is associate professor of Theology & Religious Studies and chair of Integrated Studies at Bellarmine University.

Tags: Featured