The Value of an Education, New Brunswick Style

UPDATE: To make this farce even better, it appears that for this year’s calculation rules have re-classified my two adult sons as dependents (including one who has not lived at home for 3 years). Neat how the government can on the one hand call them dependents for student loans, but not dependents on my taxes. Welcome to the era of DoubleThink!

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about The Value of an Education talking about the debate that is going on as to whether post secondary education is worth the cost, especially given the debt load student loans put on new graduates.

Well, as I learned last week (I should have known it earlier, but was not paying attention when it happened), our new provincial government here in New Brunswick, led by Premier David Alward, has taken the decision out of our hands. It seems my children no longer have the choice as to whether or not student loans are a good investment in their future, since the province has already decided they are not.

I could explain the new rules that have me so annoyed, but I will link to someone else who explains them well.

I will likely be able to adapt to this change, for my youngest anyway. Unfortunately, there will be many who cannot.

Mr. Alward, this is not the way to build an educated workforce in this province.

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The value of an education

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

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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.

Some Thoughts on the Economy

The economy is in trouble – or at least it seems to be. This is hardly a shocking statement for anyone who has not been under a rock for the last year. I sit and I wonder (as I am sure many people do) just how we ended up where we are. I am not an economist or politician or any of the people who are presumed to have an understanding of the dynamics of national and global economies. I am just a poor dumb physicist/mathematician/software developer/business person, making a few observations.

1) Is the state of our economy driven largely by media? I have noticed during my lifetime that at all times, there are certain people in the press, on TV, publishing books, etc. with “end of the world” stories about the coming economic crises. It seems to me that at certain points, mass media starts giving these doomsayers much more attention than they deserve, and further that a year or so after that happens, our economy tanks. I wonder at times if it is not at least partially a self-fulfilling prophecy – if the mass media tells us for long enough that things are bad, then our resultant behaviours cause things to get bad.

It is kind of like a (not serious) theory I have about airplanes. What if heavier-than-air flight is really impossible? Maybe airplanes really only work because the people on board believe that they work? At any given time, there will be some people who do not believe, but as long as enough believe, the everything is great. But what happens when suddenly a critical number of people on the plane start thinking “Hey, this can’t work”? Poof, the plane crashes.

Maybe the economy is something like that.

2) Big banks, Wall Street, rich people, major corporations. Everybody’s favourite targets. Have they done a lot to contribute to the current problems? Of course. Are they and they alone to blame? Hardly. Our economy got where it is because pretty much everyone involved drove it here. The real estate industry predicated on constantly rising home prices. The mortgage bankers finding new and creative ways to allow people to afford the ridiculously expensive houses they really could not afford. Consumers expecting that they should be able to afford these houses. Consumers digging themselves huge debt loads buying things they could not afford. You. Me. Everybody. We are in this mess because we all created it. Maybe to greater or lesser extents, but we all played along (except maybe for the segment of the population who never had the opportunity to play, because they have been in an economic crisis the whole time.)

People are talking a lot about this psychology of entitlement, mostly referring to executives at banks and on Wall Street. I think the problem goes much deeper than that. Our whole society has a feeling of entitlement. We work hard, so we deserve that bigger house, that newer car, that big vacation – who cares if the numbers don’t work out, we deserve it, dammit. It is the whole “American Dream” (or in my case, “Canadian Dream”) concept. It is just that, however. Just because you have worked hard and you deserve it, does not mean it will happen.

3) Values. Not religious or moral values, but the values we place on things. Who are the highest paid people in our society? Corporate wheelers and dealers. Professional athletes. Movie stars. TV stars. Musicians – at least the popular ones. I know and understand the economics of why these individuals are paid such ridiculously huge amounts of money relative to their contribution to society. I understand that what they get paid is an investment by someone, and they get huge amounts because those paying them expect to get much, much greater amounts in return for their investment. The athlete gets huge sums of money because he/she puts butts in seats at stadiums, and sells merchandise.

The problem is with the people who buy into this crap. The people who pay silly amounts just to see a sports game, or a movie, or a concert. The societal value system that says these people are worth paying to see.

It is also silly that in our society, these people are valued at such a level, when the people who really have the power to solve the worlds problems – researchers in science and engineering and medicine and throughout our universities have to fight tooth and nail to get enough money just to keep the research going. Not to mention the value we place on our educators and the infrastructure around them. Education and fundamental research should be getting the big pay checks, not people playing games, playing make-believe on a movie screen, or pumping out music.

This inversion of value is endemic in our society, and we will not truly break out of the current cycle of economic crises until our values change. Period.

Just my thoughts – but they are, of course, correct. 🙂