College is taking quite a beating in the media.
Last week, PBS’ News Hour featured four commentators discussing the pros and cons of going to college. The cons seemed to get most of the airtime.
Today’s Associated Press distributed an article on high-tech tycoon Peter Thiel giving 24 young people $100,000 each to stay out of college and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams for the next two years.
Thiel, by the way, was one of the people on PBS last week, emphasizing that college students do not get their moneys worth due to the high cost and low quality of today’s college education. He called it "subprime education."
How many online articles have I read decrying the paucity of high-paying jobs for college grads in the humanities? As if a high-paying job was the primary goal of higher education. As if money is the ultimate pay off for an educated person. As if nothing counts unless it’s wrapped in dollar signs.
It is true that college costs more than it should. It is also true that you can waste your college years if you focus mainly on partying and slip-sliding through.
Obviously, college isn’t for every student, nor is it always a pathway to bigger paychecks. Yet, the rewards of a good college education are so vast that trying to measure them in dollars and cents is like trying to measure the ocean a tablespoon at a time.
College is about becoming educated. It’s about learning how to acquire, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, understand and communicate knowledge and information.
It’s about learning to tell the difference between political propaganda and actual fact-based reality; grasping the inter-relatedness of different kinds of knowledge, and recognizing the connections among philosophies, theologies and other fields of study.
It’s about intellectual exploration, originality, a passionate love for ideas or a field of study (archaeology, astronomy, English, history or zoology).
It’s the privilege of sitting "at the feet" of experts who have spent their lives immersed in a field of endeavor, and who then open all they have learned to you, giving you in lectures and readings and field trips the benefit of their decades of research.
It’s about having the time and motivation to learn about the larger world, the world beyond your family, neighborhood, church, school, race, country. Beyond your assumptions or prejudices. Beyond your Facebook page or cell phone.
Most of us enter college with an idea of what we want to study, and in the course of taking all our required classes, discover something else that sets our heart on-fire, giving us a whole new direction, learning about a world or universe we never even imagined in high school.
If you never knew Hawaii existed, how would you miss going there? But if you learn that Hawaii has a colorful history, intriguing people, beautiful palm-lined beaches and mysterious jungles, you might find yourself wanting to learn more about this place. You might even long to go there in person to really get to know it.
That’s one of the benefits of college: introducing you to worlds you never would have discovered without it.
On PBS' News Hour last week, Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, said, "The university represents all the fields of life." It helps us understand the world through the humanities, social and natural sciences and once we choose a major, it melds this understanding with our professional or specialized knowledge.
While it might be possible to acquire much of this book knowledge on our own, let’s face it, few of us have the discipline or the free time to educate ourselves in this way. And where would we find the experts when we have a question? (Probably at the local college or university.)
College fills a discrete period -- 4-6 years -- when we’re young, before we’re encumbered with family, career or other obligations, in which to explore, discover, develop, become. Many of us find our life’s direction in college. Many of us find our heart’s delight there. Some of us actually find ourselves and our life’s meaning while we are college students.
College friendships are another priceless benefit…finding and bonding with people who care about the same subjects, issues or causes enriches not only the college years, but all the years that follow.
In addition, college friends often become the movers and shakers of the world you live in as an adult. They become the superintendent of schools where your children will go, the president of the bank or mortgage company you use to buy your home, your family doctor or dentist, the priest or minister of your church, the conductor of the local orchestra where your child wants to play when she grows up.
Few of the college benefits I’ve mentioned here are connected to a bigger paycheck, yet they all lead to a larger, richer, more expanded life.
And sometimes, in addition to all this, a college degree adds to your take home income.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a college master’s degree is worth about $1.3 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school diploma. (But, of course, a degree costs more than a high school diploma, so I can’t say how much more a degree will really put in your pocket).
Nonetheless, if you like to read and if you are intellectually curious and if you are interested in topics like history, literature, language, mathematics, science, you’ll probably love college, whether it increases the size of your paycheck or not.