Monday, August 16, 2010

The Value of a College Education

I'm going to start a Political Theory Ph.D at Boston University in a month, and I eventually want to teach at the college level. There are two things that scare me about this situation. First, I am concerned that I won't be able to hack it in the program. I think this is mostly neurosis, and it would probably be worse if I wasn't a little scared. More importantly, I'm worried that I won't be able to cut it in the college environment. Not because I am afraid I'm not smart enough or won't have enough classroom presence, but because I'm not sure I'll be able to stand the kids who shouldn't and don't want to be in the classroom with me.

Pretty much every employer asks for a college degree now, which is a great idea as long as you don't think too hard about what a college degree is supposed to represent. Your major should not be arbitrary, it should be something you want to develop expertise in. A bachelor's degree is not a piece of paper certifying that you are now awesome at life. However, this is the read that many employers - and society at large - take on it, and this means that your major matters less and less, allowing for buy-a-degree programs like University of Phoenix and its cousins to spring up offering something much more like a B.A. in Life Awesomeness (though the actual awesomeness is frankly limited). I think that on some level these schools understand that, so they skew their programs toward something more like vocational training. The problem there is that vocational training doesn't require the same kind of school that academic training does, so the end result is of mashing together apples and oranges and calling them the same thing. Crosspollenization has its limits. It's nice of these schools to take the expense and time of training employees off of businesses, but that doesn't make it a legitimate academic pursuit.

You might not care about this distinction, and the "well why not get everyone through college" concept has its merits. The problem is, though, that the reason college degrees were desirable in the first place was because earning one was a badge of academic distinction. You now have a lot of kids in school who Just Want The Degree, and employers who Just Want The Degree, and neither party really cares about academic rigor. Weird, right? The idea of academic achievement - and the work required to obtain it - was so appealing that eventually it removed its own necessity.

The sad thing about the kids who Just Want The Degree (or the parents who push them into it) is that these kids might not be cut out for academic work, and this attitude makes it seem like that makes them dumb. I know a lot of stuff about political theory; my husband knows mainframes inside and out. That doesn't make either one of us smarter than the other, it makes us smart in different directions. But if our entire social posture is geared towards college, then the people who don't care about college and aren't good at it and ultimately can't hack it are going to feel left out and worthless, and that is crap, because the world needs as many different kinds of people as possible to make it go.

It's amazing to me that something so simple needs to be said, need different kinds of people. You need some people to debate big ideas, you need some people to fix your car. You need someone to fight your wars, and you need someone to cook food. A while back, I got into a minor squabble with a friend of mine and he gave me the whole "I didn't go to college but I make three times what everyone I know who went to college does" line, which is great and I do in fact believe him, but that is also possible because not everyone does what he does. If everyone does the same things, eventually it floods the market for that activity and devalues it. It works for everything - going to college, not going to college, whatever - and unless we realize that, academia and all the many fields beyond it are in serious trouble.


  1. One of my big roadblocks in school is the resentment at having to have a degree for a job, not just because I want to know more. It's not the biggest one but it's probably the most frustrating and angering one.

  2. As someone without a college degree, but considerably more a) smarts and b) savvy than many people I know without one, I couldn't agree with you more. However, that (coupled with my awesomely Englishy secondary school qualifications) does not translate into "Yes, Christina, we would LOVE to hire you tomorrow starting at a bajillion dollars a year." It kills me to get automatically written off for a job because I don't have a 2.0 GPA and a major in General Studies. I did consider becoming an electrician at one point though, for precisely the reasons you outlined above. Skilled trades is where it's at these days.