Special Reports

February 28, 2013

T.J. Arant: College education is more valuable in the long run

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Charles Yancey, 1816

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Lately I have read that the primary virtue of a college degree is to equip a graduate for a job that pays well.

The argument arises from two separate streams, which then unite to form a river of doubt. One stream will claim that, unless you major in something immediately earning a $50,000 salary, it’s a waste of time. This line of argument claims that majoring in English, for example, prepares you for absolutely nothing in the job market.

But these “useless” majors can do something quite valuable: cause students to become self-directed and self-disciplined thinkers, able to apply rigorous standards to problem solving. Coupled with real-world internship experiences, such majors can cause students to unite those skills with other, job-specific attributes, making majors in the liberal arts not only excellent candidates for entry-level professional jobs, but prime contenders for positions further up the ladder.

And according to a 2013 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the overall median starting salary for the undergraduate class of 2012 is $44,455. Clearly graduates of liberal arts colleges compete well for good jobs.

The other stream of the argument contends that a college education, especially at a private liberal arts college, is just too expensive. While it is undoubtedly true that some students at elite institutions rack up large debts, it is usually not the case for traditional undergraduates at our fine Kansas independent colleges and universities.

To illustrate, most Kansas private colleges will charge a sticker price around $30,000 for a year, including room, board and fees. What many people do not know is that all our Kansas private colleges devote significant scholarship money to students, enough that the effective sticker price for a year can frequently total half the advertised price or less, or around $15,000.

That still seems like a lot of money. But if you factor in living expenses, you soon realize that $1,000 a month is about what you need to live, whether you’re in college or not. In fact, for many people, housing, utilities and food will total more than that figure. One thousand dollars a month, times nine months, equals $9,000. Take that from the $15,000 (which includes on-campus food, housing and utilities), and you have an annual effective tuition rate of $6,000. Even if you borrow all of that money, you’ll still only have an educational tuition debt of $24,000 after four years.

Most people will borrow more on their first new automobile. Isn’t a good education more valuable in the long run than a car?

Given that college graduates earn, on average, nearly a million dollars more than non-college graduates over the course of a career, college would seem a wise investment.

Returning to Thomas Jefferson, in his Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, Aug. 4, 1818, an investment in higher education has several purposes, among them:

• To give students an understanding which banishes all arbitrary thinking
• To teach them to harmonize the interests of agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce, so as to give a free scope to public industry
• To enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order
• To enlighten them with mathematical and physical sciences
• To form them to habits of reflection and correct action, rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.

Nowhere among Jefferson’s justifications for higher education is “to get students a good paying job when they graduate.”

That’s because he understood in 1816 three things that are true today: 1) the best candidates for jobs bring more than a simple skill set; 2) many of the best- paying jobs are not invented yet; and 3) education is about more than the first year of a career – it’s about the next 50 years of one.

In other words, you don’t get good opportunities because you learned a skill; you get good opportunities because you are well-skilled in learning and because you can adapt to the future. Our economy depends on just such dynamic thinking and innovation.

In the case of our private, faith-based and faith-affiliated universities, we also hone in, based on our various traditions, to “form them to habits of reflection and correct action.”

The great strength of American higher education is its diversity: public and private; teaching and research; two-year and four-year institutions. No matter our place in higher education, each institution strives to produce graduates who are well-prepared to exercise the benefits of liberty, able to adapt, ready for the future.

Understanding that strength, and supporting it, prevents our nation from becoming “ignorant and free,” which Jefferson rightly observes is impossible. You can be one or the other, but not both.

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