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?
- The conventional view is that education increases one's earning potential,
so attending college is a ticket to a high-paying job.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Therefore, it is not true that more education always
produces a higher income.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
- think from first principles (i.e., not by memorizing,
not by quoting either dogma or authorities,
not by copying from handbooks),
- be creative, and
- to understand how to work with an expert (e.g., physician, attorney,
scientist, engineer, ....), instead of being passive while the
expert solves the problem.
I think the goals of education should be:
- 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.
- to think critically:
- to decide which of two conflicting statements is correct.
- to recognize rubbish when one reads/hears it.
- to evaluate the credibility of information, without depending on
peer review or endorsement by experts.
- 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:
- ability to read well
- ability to think critically, to reject propaganda
- ability to write concise, significant prose
- ability to think quantitatively: not only algebra, but also calculus and
- broad range of knowledge (facts + skills): mathematics, physics, chemistry,
biology, history, philosophy, ....
so that, when confronted with a novel situation, one knows where
to start to analyze the situation and find a solution or resolution.
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:
- such situations are more interesting for students,
hence increasing their motivation to do the homework
or laboratory exercise with enthusiasm,
- shows the student how to apply fundamental concepts
to practical situations,
- and assures the instructor that he/she is spending precious
class time on concepts that continue to be important.
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created 28 Dec 2000, modified 25 June 2013 and 17 Feb 2020
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