Why Attend College?

Copyright 2001 by Ronald B. Standler

The state and local governments in the USA operate elementary schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities. In addition, there are many private schools and universities. It seems that everyone assumes that education is desirable, without having a good reason why education is desirable.

I begin by asking, Why attend college?
I list some conventional answers and criticize them.
Finally, I suggest what I believe the goal of education should be, then give my own answer to why some people should attend college.

Why Attend College?
Conventional Answers

  1. The conventional view is that education increases one's earning potential, so attending college is a ticket to a high-paying job.

  2. A college education is a requirement of many professional jobs. A bachelor's degree is a minimum credential for teachers, engineers, commissioned officers in the military, and many salaried jobs in large corporations with a formal hiring process. A bachelor's degree is required for admission to law school or medical school, which – in turn – is a prerequisite to becoming an attorney or physician.

  3. Although it is not politically correct to say this aloud, when I was a student in undergraduate college during 1967-71, many women attended college to find a husband with an above-average earning potential.

  4. Sending a recent high school graduate (i.e., 18 years of age) directly to college for four years, before he/she is employed full-time results in a more mature employee.

These conventional reasons are all essentially economic: they assert that education is desirable because it makes one wealthier or because education serves the needs of businesses.

criticism of economic justification for education

Economic justifications for education relegate education to mere vocational training. While I do not dispute that economic prosperity is nice, money (and power) are shallow goals in life.

Someone with a bachelor's or master's degree usually earns more money than someone who did not graduate from high school. However, more education does not always translate to a higher income. For example,
  1. A manager in industry with a MBA degree (i.e., 5 years of full-time university education) likely earns more money than a scientist in the same company with a Ph.D. degree (i.e., 8 to 10 years of full-time university education), if they have the same number of years of professional experience.

  2. I have heard that a postman who delivers letters (only a high-school education) can earn more money than a school teacher with a Master's degree.

  3. When I was a young faculty member at the University of Florida in 1978-79, my students, who were graduating with a bachelor's degree and being employed in industry, had a significantly greater starting salary than my salary, although I had earned a doctorate degree and written papers that were published in peer-reviewed, archival journals.

  4. When I worked in industry around 1980, I was told that there were people working on the assembly line doing manual labor who had earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, archeology, or other fields in which gainful employment was scarce. These highly educated people were doing the same work as, and earning the same income as, mere high school graduates.

  5. Entertainers and professional athletes in the USA earn much more than a scientist or engineer. Even in a university – which ought to have better values – the football coach (who is not a faculty member) receives a larger salary than any professor.

  6. And more education does not make one more employable. Education beyond a master's degree commonly makes one less employable, as employers declare that people with doctoral degrees are "overqualified" for most jobs. Similarly, substantial experience in one specialty makes one less employable. For example, a hospital emergency room is unlikely to hire a physician who has ten years of experience as a board-certified dermatologist. Such a dermatologist can not go back to being a general-practice physician.
Therefore, it is not true that more education always produces a higher income.

criticism of "increased maturity" justification for college education

While there is no doubting that a 22 year old person is generally more mature than an 18 year old person, maturation might be more effectively accomplished by enlisting in the military. Not only will the military pay the person (in contrast to the person paying tuition to a college), but also the military is likely to assign more responsibility to the person. Hence, attending college to gain maturity is an inappropriate use of college — military service would be a better way to gain maturity.

I regard it as a perversion of a university for students to attend for four years, without each student having a genuine interest in academic programs.

additional criticism of conventional reasons

Even if the purpose of education is job training, the exact skills change rapidly in high technology areas. For example, design of digital circuits in 1975 meant using transistor-transistor-logic (TTL) integrated circuits. By 1985, digital design meant programming microprocessors. Universities love this rapid technical obsolescence, as it creates opportunities to teach "continuing education" courses to employees of local industry, thus generating more income for universities.

In practice, a bachelor's degree is not essential for many jobs. But when the employment office of a large corporation requires a bachelor's degree, that office uses colleges to help sort applicants for a job. Corporations automatically reject those applicants who lack the intelligence or diligence to complete four years of college. Corporations often give preference to college graduates with high grades, again allowing colleges to screen applicants for the corporation.

Increasingly, students attend college to obtain credentials for future employment — which often means that students choose easy classes to sculpt a high grade-point average. Given that it is impossible to know what a student will be doing ten or twenty years in the future, it is not possible to select classes that are relevant to a student's future employment. Therefore, I believe that the educational program that makes sense combines breadth of subject areas with intellectual rigor, as preparation for continuing to learn and to adapt to changing technology.

My view

Education is about learning to think — learning different ways to analyze a problem and find a solution.

One of the traditional purposes of a university is to prepare students for a future career in the learned professions (e.g., law, medicine, science, engineering, scholarly research, and teaching). The distinguishing feature of education for learned professions, as contrasted with mere vocational training, is that it is desirable that learned professionals:
I think the goals of education should be:
  1. to prepare students to learn on their own, by reading books and by doing experiments. Anyone with a bachelor's degree should be able to teach themselves whatever technical skill(s) they may need.

  2. to think critically:
    1. to decide which of two conflicting statements is correct.
    2. to recognize rubbish when one reads/hears it.
    3. to evaluate the credibility of information, without depending on peer review or endorsement by experts.

  3. to know how to find more than one acceptable way to solve a particular problem, so one had an intelligent choice, instead of merely reacting to the problem.

That means the focus of education should be on fundamentals that will never go out of fashion and will prepare the graduates to teach themselves. By fundamentals, I mean:
In particular, I find that a class in either symbolic logic or computer programming (preferably both) teaches one to think logically, and to be precise. The experience gained in those classes can be a good influence on one's rhetorical and writing skills.

The problem is that my suggestions of what education should contain (e.g., calculus, statistics with a calculus prerequisite, physics with a calculus prerequisite, symbolic logic, computer programming) are intellectually demanding, not the easy route to a bachelor's degree. Because students select their major subject and many of their classes, the likely outcome is to select an easy path.

In engineering colleges, and also in physics and chemistry departments, the curriculum is already crowded with required courses in narrow subjects, which effectively prevents students from obtaining the broad education that I advocate.

Many humanities students choose to avoid the difficult classes in mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, etc., in order to sculpt a high grade average, be elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and graduate cum laude, but without an understanding of calculus, differential equations, statistics, physics, chemistry, computer programming, .... In short they appear educated and they accept the academic credentials, while remaining unable to understand science and engineering, and unable to think in scientific ways.

To avoid misunderstanding, permit to me to say that I strongly believe in using laboratory exercises and homework problems that illustrate contemporary practical situations. There are several advantages in using contemporary, or at least recent, situations in such assigned work:
  1. such situations are more interesting for students, hence increasing their motivation to do the homework or laboratory exercise with enthusiasm,
  2. shows the student how to apply fundamental concepts to practical situations,
  3. and assures the instructor that he/she is spending precious class time on concepts that continue to be important.

This document is at   http://www.rbs0.com/edu.htm
created 28 Dec 2000, modified 25 June 2013 and 17 Feb 2020

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