One of the biggest challenges facing young people contemplating college, which they may not even be aware of, is how they will be able to reconcile the idea of scholastic exploration—something that’s pretty much the exclusive territory of colleges and universities—with an ROI approach to the cost.
These days, when students and their families contemplate financing an education—and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting a college degree is worth the effort and money—the focus is what sort of job the student will be able to get and how much it will pay. Considering the debt that many are taking on, it seems like a logical and responsible way to think. But it’s not necessarily the right way to view a college education’s return on investment. College should be a time of pursuing knowledge and discovering what is of interest; it shouldn’t just be a means to an end, the “end” being a job.
I was extremely fortunate. In college I studied electrical engineering, which looked like great preparation for a high-paying career, and social science, which I suppose my family and friends thought was just a passing interest. But what was great was I had the luxury to pursue what I was interested in without feeling the pressure that I should be devoting my undergraduate time and efforts to what looked like the most logical path to a job. And, as it turned out, as much as I loved engineering, I was more interested in social sciences.
Deciding on what course of study to pursue by looking at the salaries of that major’s graduates shouldn’t have to be the default approach. On the other hand, when families are contemplating annual tuition and expenses of $60,000 or more, it seems like the only way to go. What’s inherently flawed is that by applying a laser focus on one field of study, say electrical engineering, chemistry or mathematics, to the exclusion of other fields that are perceived as having less ROI potential such as sociology, English or history, a student might completely miss where his or her greatest talent lies. That would be a shame because it’s exactly that sort of intellectual discovery that is supposed to be the point of going to college. Higher education has to change to make this type of exploration possible.
I don’t have the answers, but I do have some thoughts on different approaches that might help: MOOCs (massive open online courses) conducted by legendary professors at some of the world’s most prestigious universities and the Khan Academy model, an online, self-directed educational resource with libraries of content on every subject, are two such directions. I will explore those ideas in future posts.
Take Away: The value of a college degree has to be measured in more than its ROI after graduation.