The value of an education


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I see a great deal of debate recently about the value of higher education, and whether the high cost of university is worth it from a job market/earning power perspective. I have this debate myself recently, seeing the challenges my own children are facing, coming out of college and trying to enter the workforce.

I have a few thoughts on the topic that I would like to share.

The debate scares the hell out of me

We already live in a society that does not particularly respect or reward intelligence, certainly not the way it should. People are very rarely rewarded or recognized for academic success, except insofar as it might help them be financially successful.

Most parents would much more proudly proclaim their child’s talents as an athlete or entrepreneur than as a scientist or researcher.

In addition, we see a strong social trend towards active disrespect of scientific or research disciplines because the results might challenge religious dogma and political rhetoric.

I see the arguments against higher education as threatening the very future of our society. We already have far too few young people entering engineering or scientific disciplines.

You get what you pay for

Ok – so I am not referring specifically to what your higher education costs, in dollars. What I really mean is that you get out of a higher education pretty much what you put into it.

If you are studying something for which you have a passion, if you throw yourself into your studies heart and soul, if you embrace and enjoy the entire experience, then I have no doubt at all that you will see great value from your education both economically and personally.

If on the other hand, you are only there because your parents said you should be and they are paying for it, if you pick your program based on least difficulty or avoiding early morning classes, and if you only apply yourself to least extent necessary to get by, then you will probably get out of education exactly what you put – diddly squat.

So, like many things, what value you get out of higher education depends very much on what value you are looing for.

A good education is more valuable than a mediocre education

A few generations ago, higher education was available to a small enough segment of the population that getting a university degree, no matter in what field or from what school, gave you a significant competitive advantage when it came to the working world.

More recently, say in my generation or the one before it, higher education had become significantly more accessible, but it was still typically sufficient to have a good degree from a good school (and have had reasonably good marks) to have a high probability of long term success.

Now, however, having a degree is not in and of itself a strong differentiator when it comes to the job market. It is now more important that ever to invest in an education that matches your goals. If your goal is to be highly employable and make lots of money, you better be very careful to choose a discipline and a school that matches that goal. Otherwise, you will be one of those who sees your education as a waste.

Education does not guarantee success

This should be obvious, but an education does not in and of itself guarantee success. Actually, nothing guarantees success. All you can hope for is to follow a path and takes actions which improve the probability of success.

People often point examples of very successful individuals who did not finish university, and say “that proves that you do not need higher education to be successful”. That is very true, but remember that such cases statistical outliers, and are so rare as to be meaningless in planning you future. Others often use these examples to support statements like “higher education is a waste”.

Again, what is critical is to have some idea where you are going, and then choose a type and level of education which is appropriate to those goals.

But please, do not discount higher education completely based upon questionable, anecdotal evidence.

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