College Deans on Why College is Important

TechCrunch has a piece in response to their own article on Peter Thiel’s earlier statement that higher education is a bubble about to burst, citing (among other things) the elitist dynamic that keeps the most premium institutions churning, as well as soaring expenses in tuition.

The piece cites deans at established universities to discredit the original comment. While some are understandable arguments, others are patently wrong, and none address the key issue – that it may not be worth it to pay to attend school for four years to only have an ordinary job.

Duke University Pratt School of Engineering dean Tom Katsouleas:

First is the problem of argument by testimonial or individual example.  By this argument, one could look around at lottery winners, and there are plenty of them.  One could easily conclude that there is no reason to go to school or even to become an entrepreneur; all one needs to do is buy a lottery ticket. 

This argument equates having a good idea to winning the lottery – which is a little silly to begin with, and mostly wrong when you consider the role the other entrepreneurs mentioned in the article have played in the development of the web.

Of course, the other reason one should not take Peter Thiel’s advice is that the value of education is intrinsic and an end in itself rather than something to be measured by its career financial return.  It is during one’s undergraduate years that one discovers oneself, where one fits into the world and what it means to be human.  Not to mention, there is value in the network of lifelong friends one makes and there is even measurable lifelong happiness associated with education according to studies by economists like Richard Easterlin.

Yes, college does provide value beyond its financial return, but if you as a student can justify $100,000 in expenses to make friends and “find yourself,” then you are grossly overpaying.

Finally Thiel’s question reminds me of a story of a high school teacher confronted with the same question from his students: “Why do we need to learn this?”  The teacher replied, “You don’t.  There is only one thing you need to learn to ask.”  The piqued students implored him to tell what that was.  His answer:  ”Would you like fries with that?”

If a teacher’s response to this quite common question is to attempt to scare you, they’re handing it wrong. There’s no question that technical information is important to learn – it forms the very foundation of anything done in the future. If a teacher cannot cannot communicate that effectively to his/her students, then they are failing.

On a related note, there’s also no indication that college is the only place to gain the technical background needed for work – in cases industry may indeed be a better enviornment.

Bruce Eisenstein:

For the very talented and very ambitious, dropping out is a good idea. But Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were already vetted and educated by Harvard before they dropped out.  They both needed Harvard for credibility; they just didn’t need four years of it.

If you knew a well-coordinated student, 6 ft. 9 inches, with a 50% 3-point shot, advise him to take a chance on the NBA and not engineering school.  Likewise, someone who is an outstanding and ambitious computer geek.

Getting an engineering degree reduces the variance in your career outcomes.  You might not get the billions, but you also won’t get into poverty.

While that last comment certainly used to be the case, I must beg to differ (take a look at this graphic, from Reddit). With the American youth buckling under student loans, is it really worth the money for a stable job?

Education certainly is important, but there is no way it is totally affordable at current prices, nor is it as productive as it pretends to be when it is as exclusionary as Thiel points out. Technical skills, forums for development, and opportunities for growth and interaction are the main advantages of college, but these need to be cheaper and more widespread to be of benefit to the public and the United States.

To anyone who claims that this isn’t possible, I point to India’s example. One of the prime reasons as to why India has benefitted from secondary education is that one of the largest stakeholders and beneficiaries of higher education in the country also held a significant stake in paying for it – corporations in India commonly opened professional schools and full-fledged universities, where they would hire from. Private corporations in the United States, on the other hand, are among the largest employers of students but rarely participate to the same degree in educating them, and this gap is exactly what the U.S. is paying for, both directly through student loans and indirectly through outsourcing.



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