Sunday, May 29, 2011

Do people need a college degree?

Do we need a college education to be successful in life? Do we need a college education to be happy in life? At a cost of nearly $50,000/yr. for a private college, $20, 000 for a public university and $10,000 for a community college, people have a right to ask the question?

Ultimately, the question is a simple and straightforward one: Is the return from a college education worth the investment. As a lifelong learner (“Knowledge never rests, people do”) with years of education on my back and decades of teaching experience in my career, let me share some of my ideas with you.

For those of you who want a simple answer, the answer is it all depends. In most cases, the answer is NO.

The reason I say: “It all depends” is because college is a tool (education) to an end (life), and not an end by itself.

If college is a tool, then whether a person needs to go to college depends on
what he/she wants out of life. Then and only then can he/she find the right tool to get to success and/or happiness. (These are two goals, not one. That is the reason why educators, self-servingly(?), insist that college education is not about success (jobs), but about opening minds and enriching life. There is some clear and convincing evidence to suggest that college graduates are more happy with their life.)

The reason I say (in most cases): “No” is because if college education is a tool, then in most cases we can learn without going to college. College is just institutionalized learning, i.e., learning in classroom (textbook learning vs. learning in the field (experiential learning). For example in imperial China, a medical career started with following the master around. Turning to England, the common law lawyers learned by clerking with a senior solicitor or barrister, in chamber, not through law schools.

Back to the question of whether people need a college education. People need to ask themselves the follow questions;

(1) What do I want to do with life? Given what you want out of life, then you need to decide whether a college education is necessary? If you want to be just a laborer (garbage hauler) or crafts person (watch repairer), college is not necessary (again in most cases). But if you want to be MD, certainly medical school is a must, for no other reason than because it is required for licensing with AMA. Finally, if you want to open your mind and enrich you life, college might be the only way to go. (I said this because a liberal arts education is very hard to replicate, particularly when it is done well. That is why the new web based “e-U” education does not come close in delivering such kind of enriching education. “e-U” is designed for training (impacting job skills) not education (developing critical thinking).

(2) If your answer to (1) is that a college education is or is not necessary in light of your life goal, you still need to ask whether it is a good “return on investment” (ROI) in business world). Since time and money are limited resources for people to achieve their ultimate of life goals (security at the lower end and happiness in the higher end), a person need to decide how best to use time and money at his/her disposal.

The ultimate issue here is not only about college vs. no college, however expensive college is.

Instead, the real issue is about how best to invest our time, money, and effort to better the content and prospect of our life.

Since there are so many variables in making for a good life, it is fool hearted for anyone to say whether college is worth it or not. Thus I think it is impossible for people to say categorically that college is or is not for you.

That is really what the debate about. (If you want to discuss whether college really deliver on its promises, either job (law school) or happiness (liberal arts), we can, and should.)

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