An article in The Eagle raised the question of whether college is a wise investment these days (Jan. 24 Local & State). A response by Gary Miller, Wichita State University provost, emphasized that universities are "critical drivers of the state economy," and that the economic benefits of a college education accrue to more than just its immediate recipients (Jan. 28 Opinion).
There can be no question that investment in higher education pays off economically for both the individual and the region. What have not been mentioned, however, are the noneconomic benefits for both the individual and the community.
A primary value of a college education lies in the contribution it makes to the individual's ability to live a meaningful life. The person with an informed appreciation of art, literature and music, who can study philosophy and history independently, who can intelligently follow current events, who can intelligently follow scientific developments, who has a sensitive and tutored appreciation of other cultures and ways of living, etc. —that person will live a far richer life than anyone in similar or superior economic circumstances to whom all this is closed. Surely, one of the primary benefits of a college education is the acquisition of the interests, skills and knowledge base to flourish as a human being in the modern world.
A second but no less important benefit accruing to the individual is the acquisition of individual autonomy — the ability to make free and informed decisions for oneself. At least in modern, industrialized democracies like our own, the threat to individual autonomy does not lie in the classical forms of censorship and control; they are not necessary when individual choice can be so effectively manipulated by sound bites, slogans and spin doctors.
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The ability to be autonomous and in control of one's own life requires a broad knowledge base, the ability to discriminate and make nuanced judgments, the ability to conduct independent research, and the exercise of critical reasoning skills. These, of course, are exactly what a college education provides.
Considerations of autonomy naturally segue into a third benefit of a college education. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the mid-20th century, a major theme of theorists of education was the notion of education for democracy. When important national decisions are placed, directly or indirectly, in the hands of the electorate, it is imperative that one have an educated electorate. If democracy is to survive, citizens must be prepared for informed, critical consideration of health care reform, the economy, environmental degradation, national security, global warming and a host of problems not yet apparent.
Lacking any meaningful grasp of the issues, individuals will substitute the parroting of slogans and meaningless metaphors promulgated by special interests, or identify with engaging, powerful personalities. The outcome will not be determined by reasoned, reflective consideration of issues but by whoever is most successful at persuading the uninformed.
While individuals and society certainly gain economically from college education, the economic benefits are neither the only nor the most important benefits of a college education.