The Value of Higher Education

President Obama’s 2009 state of the union speech addressed higher education as a universal vocation, if not a duty of all citizens. Three years later, reports show a loss of value with the bachelor degree and a growing interest in the master degree. Law schools and MBA programs are bursting at the seams with hungry students wanting to stand out in a rough job market. The last six months have shown numerous articles on the limited job market as well as a high unemployment rate not going away anytime soon. Roughly 30 percent of Americans now have a college degree but this no longer guarantees an advantage but stands now as a prerequisite. 

Somewhere over the years, the University lost its identity. Not too long ago, the business major ceased to exist. Now it’s the biggest major in the United States. (Ironically, employers now de-value the four year bachelor degree because its commodification erased the premium.) But Universities are not trade schools meant to pump out the next generation of “money-making” machines. Rather, higher education forms students into intelligent and well-rounded human beings by placing them into conversation with the world of ideas and shocking enough, each other.  This type of education has no direct monetary value but the formation of the whole person is incredibly invaluable.  


Yet, the recent transformation of the University sacrifices the construction of conscience and good will for a more “skilled” based education. What happened to the values of critical reflection, debate, and conversation?

To offer a better insight (something to chew on), I suggest watching two videos: 

1) Education and John Henry Newman by Fr. Michael Himes 

2) The Changing Paradigm of Education by Sir Ken Robinson

Many questions are left unanswered but, nevertheless, we must continue to update, refine and innovate our education system in a way that doesn't focus primarily on economics but all areas of growth. 

Michael L. Avery

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Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 8 months ago
Many years ago (1968), when I started out as a freshman at Spring Hill College (Mobile AL), the liberal arts education was encouraged.  We would study the literature, art, math, science, philosophy and theology.  When we got out we may not be custom skilled for a specific job, but, the theory went, we would have the tools we needed to think critically and broadly, and that would help us in whatever field we wished to pursue.

Job training was one thing, education another.

I also recall that the very word, education, means "to free".  Personally, I found education to be very free-ing.
Brendan McGrath
7 years 8 months ago
I wonder if and to what extent this is something that varies from college to college.  To oversimplify, I have this hunch that there are two kids of colleges: the colleges students attend in order to attend college, and the colleges students attend in order to get a job.  I went to Georgetown for undergrad and Notre Dame for my Master of Theological Studies; I think both fall into the former category.

I imagine that the first type of college (collegs you attend in order to attend college) tends to serve people from a higher level of society (though certainly not ONLY people from a higher level) - middle to upper-middle class and higher, I guess; I'm lucky enough to be from that level.  For these levels of society, generally speaking, you go to college because that's what you do - it's a status thing (though of course it's usually also for all the good and noble reasons, too), and WHICH college you go to is also a status thing, perhaps even more important (at least to me) than what kind of job and what amount of money you go on to make. 

An anecdote to kind of illustrate the disconnect between the two types of colleges: I teach Theology in a Catholic high school; I've been at different schools, one of which was a diocesan high school in Philly back in the 2008-2009 year (I was 26 at the time; it was just after my two years at Notre Dame for my MTS).  Anyway, at that particular high school, I was once talking with another teacher (who was perhaps in his 40s or 50s), and when in the course of the conversation he learned I went to Georgetown, he asked (not with any criticism or anything) why I would go there if I wanted to be a teacher, when I could go to a school like Temple in Philly for the same thing and at less cost. 

I forget how I responded, but I was struck by the incredible gap between what college meant/means for me vs. what it seemed to mean for him, and also struck by how priveleged I was to be able to have experienced college the way I did.  For me, I really had no idea going into college what I wanted to do - and college is sort of an end in itself; knowledge is an end in itself.  Another way to put it: going to a school like Georgetown was not a means to attain some ambition; going to Georgetown IS an ambition (same with Notre Dame). 

Another related thought which I'm not quite sure how to express - I get the feeling that those who attend a school like Georgetown receive a sort of "status" from it that enables them to do something that others might consider "beneath" them - e.g., years of service, something like Teach for America, etc. - because the status from the college gives you what others seek through a high-powered job.  Is that making any sense?
Brendan McGrath
7 years 8 months ago
One thing to tack on to my previous post that might make the point at the end clearer:  It's like, once you've gone to an elite university, you're "in the club" - it doesn't matter how much money you go on to make or what kind of job you have (well, maybe what kind of job matters, but not how much money): you have that elite "status" almost as an ontological character, like in those British period dramas taking place in the 19th century where a "gentleman" or "lady" is always a "gentleman" or "lady."  I.e., the social worker or professor or Jesuit, who makes comparatively little or nothing, is "in the club" as much as the CEO making millions of dollars.
Adam Rasmussen
7 years 8 months ago
Here, here!
John Barbieri
7 years 8 months ago
O Graduates of Elite Institutions, pray for us who are less wonderful than you.
7 years 8 months ago
I could hear my dad in this piece so loud and clear!  He's been deceased since 1983, God rest his soul.
Crystal Watson
7 years 8 months ago
I don't think it's true that only middle and upper class  people will go to  colleges to better themselves intellectually, while people from the under-classes will go for vocational reasons.    I came from a lower class family and yes, did go to a state college, but I went to learn, not for vocational reasons, and I majored in art, philosophy, and later history.  The unexamined life not being  worth living isn't just true for rich people.
7 years 8 months ago
Relevant to the two videos Mr. Avery recommended.

I loved the Fr. Himes lecture but thought it impractical for today's undergraduate.  It is a lifelong pursuit and not one so easily accomplished during the four years in college today with a premium of somehow paying for this $150.000 expenditure.  Back when Fr. Himes was a student in college, a college education could be had for about $10,000 in today's dollars.  Better to do it as a lifetime goal.

The other I thought Sir Ken Robinson was a complete joke.  It was clever but to imply that we are born geniuses and then our system beats it out of us is absurd.  There is a history of refuation for this as most of the world was not educated and still isn't and we do not have the abundance of geniuses anywhere or at any time.
Crystal Watson
7 years 7 months ago

There were students in the ancient world who learned because learning for its own sake was a good thing ... the students of Socrates and those of the Lyceum.
7 years 8 months ago
Learning how to think was the best thing I got from my education.  I still think my most valuable course ever was high school geometry where we would take on ever increasing puzzles in logic.  I loved it.  I have to admit I then floundered a little in the Jesuit college education in philosophy and religion as I was exposed to more vague concepts and could not put a handle on them so easily as I could with squares, circles and lines.  But it was in business school that I was exposed to an education that put the two together.  

It demanded  logic, thinking and oratory presentation, especially speed of thinking and the pressure to express one's thoughts were intense.  I was learning some specifics but we were being taught to think just as much as anyone in the Great Books program was and in ways that had very near term practical outcomes as well as examining the long term implications of our actions as we debated case materials.  So I would not write down so quickly all business educations.  The lawyers in our program thought it was harder than law school.

And if one wants to continue their education, there are extremely cheap ways to do so.  The Teaching company has hundreds of high level courses on a myriad of subjects and it is possible to become a science and history junkie without ever stepping in a classroom.  And with the internet there is a mushrooming business of educational opportunities.  I suggest those interested to look into the khanacademy which is one of the hottest things in education today.  A friend got laid off from a tenured teaching job but was able to recoup by starting certification in another area by taking courses on line from Kansas State.  Something a few years ago would have been impossible.  Another friend will defend his Ph.D thesis soon from the University of Tennessee while sitting his home in New Jersey.  He has been to Knoxville only twice.

Let's hear it for life long learning.  But remember one needs a job to pay for the practical things of life. 


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