How Should We Think of Higher Education?

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Photo by Western.

The walls of the living room in my apartment are decorated with a number of different posters, but one of them always catches my eye. Alongside a pair of Taylor Swift posters is one, meant to promote Northwestern’s Contemporary Thought Speaker Series, that simply asks “Why are you here?”

More often than not, this phrase catches my eye—why am I in college? Why are we at Northwestern?

That question is more complex than it first seems, and I bring it up for a simple reason: I don’t think that anyone, liberal or conservative, really understands how to conceptualize of higher education. All too often, conservatives malign college for its endemic liberalism, rail against sending more students to college, and act as if college’s only purpose is as a big job-training program. Liberals, on the other hand, have a tendency to anger when “college” and “education” are associated with “real-life skills” and “real-world relevance”. They can’t imagine college to have a purpose beyond esoteric studies in the non-falsifiable arts (worlds of social science, for example, where all statements are inherently un-provable and, thus, correct). Further, they want everyone to go to college, whether the individual wants to go or not.

I’m struck by the vacuity of holding black-and-white positions on any topic, but when it comes to higher education it seems especially ludicrous. Some of the best aspects of college—making new friends, trying out new organizations, living independently—have nothing to do with the classroom. And there are returns to an education in, say, English literature, that may not show up as obviously as those obtained in computer science. That does not mean they do not exist. Degrees in subjects like sociology, gender studies, or art history teach different aesthetics and different ways of understanding the world. In and of itself, that’s important. And that’s not to mention how college likely makes us better citizens and members of a democracy (which would be furthered by a common core of study, but that’s for a different article).

And yet, when private schools are receiving federal aid, when student loans are packaged by the government, and when public schools are massively subsidized by the government, the average taxpayer rightfully should demand some kind of return. If colleges are churning out students who truly gained little to nothing in the way of observable or unobservable skills, those students have wasted four years of productivity and society has spent tens of thousands of dollars for no productive end other than allowing a student a vacation before entering the workforce. That’s a waste.

These two views aren’t terribly incompatible, though conservatives and liberals seem to be miles apart on them. At the end of the day, it would be hard to argue that we should actively discourage students from pursuing higher education (though many conservatives do). Higher education does, after all, have a host of positive spillover effects, and more learning can never really be a bad thing for an individual in pursuit of leading the Good Life. And, as of now, bubble or not, college degrees still, on average, pay for themselves. That’s not to say that we should push all kids to college—indeed, we need to make concerted efforts to encourage them to choose whatever path works best for them, and in doing so we need to break the culture of stigmatizing those who do not attend college. For those in college, we should recognize the benefits—both job-market-related and not—that college brings.

Only by confronting the reality that both conservatives and liberals have an element of truth in their positions can we finally understand that college, on net, is good, and that we would be remiss as a society to dissuade those who want to attend from attending. Because, if we do it right, college can hit that sweet-spot between intellectual exploration and job-training program.

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