The Payoff For a College Degree

It’s clear that the return on the investment in a college education isn’t as promising as it once was. To that end, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently wondered how to “assess the real payoff of a college degree.” Answering this question necessitates defining higher education’s purpose.

If one attends college simply hoping for an economic return on their investment, then colleges are clearly failing. With jobs now in short supply, there is a growing disconnect between degrees and employment opportunities. At private colleges where the tab often exceeds $50,000 a year, tuition and other expenses are so steep that one might need to wait twenty years before one sees a real return on their investment. Based on this economic cost-benefit analysis, one could argue that a liberal arts education is impractical. Moreover, given the disappearance of academic standards in the humanities, one could even say that a liberal arts education is worthless.

As I see it, the discussion on the investment in higher education makes some sense since the costs seemingly outstrip the benefits. Yet it would be a mistake, in my judgment, to assume this is the be all and end all of an evaluation. Higher education should be more than a rite of passage or a ticket to employment. It should involve more than the ritualistic call for personal growth Higher education must also concern itself with transmission of the intellectual tradition that undergirds Western civilization.

If there is growing cynicism about higher education, it is because many now know that the four years of “study” often involve banal subjects and bacchanalian pleasure. Educators have lost perspective, and the academy is adrift in a sea of empty. As such, higher education provides no guide for students’ future.


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