1 year ago
Thomas Grice
Commentary

Despite barriers to entry, rising cost of higher education universities offer paths to financial security, personal happiness few routes give

Our attitudes toward education affect the education we are able to get. As college students, the burden of college — the cost and chaotic nature of this period in a person’s life —  makes the benefits seem like a distant jester, taunting us for our responsible decision to sacrifice some of the free time in our youth in pursuit of a degree. Despite the flaws in the American educational system, a higher education is worth getting and those flaws are worth fixing.

Here’s a phrase you hear every so often: “Not everyone needs to go to college.” With the idea of free or increasingly subsidized college re-entering the American zeitgeist due to the election season, these words are being repeated more often than normal. However, if we want increased happiness and wellbeing for ourselves and others, statistics make a very strong argument for receiving a college education — even in the face of rising costs.

Although often presented as a primarily monetary decision, other markers such as health and civic engagement are positively associated with receiving a college degree. According to a University of Maine study, the likelihood of “very good to excellent” health is 44 percent higher, the probability of being jailed or imprisoned is 4.9 times less and the chance of being happy is increased significantly with a college education. Educated people also contribute more to charities and spend more time volunteering.

This isn’t to discount the monetary rewards of going to college. Though an increasingly global and complex marketplace and increased costs are affecting the return on investment of getting a college education, the financial benefits are still manifold. The aforementioned study suggests that the probability of unemployment for those who hold just a bachelor’s degrees is 2.2 times less, annual earnings are $32,000 more and overall incidence of poverty is 3.4 times lower. If you have a better path to being globally rich, happy and compassionate or a good argument as to why you wouldn’t want that for your fellow man, I’m all ears.

Here’s yet another pessimistic (and pervasive) sequence of words in reference to higher education: “We can’t afford it.” This statement arises in the face of proposals for a larger educational budget or free higher education from public universities (or, sadly, from families who are intimidated by the massive investment education can demand). 

This is an argument that is quite worthy of examination. We should be identifying waste in public university systems and we should ask ourselves how we can offer an effective higher education experience while reducing costs.

For example, in my personal career field of software engineering, I am aware of a significant portion of individuals who are self-taught or taught through non-traditional online courses or boot camps. Stack Overflow, a major resource in the world of programming, cites the number of solely self-taught software developers at 13 percent.

This is relevant because software developers have a culture of developing skills by any means necessary, often on the cheap. Online resources and courses, such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity and Pluralsight, offer configurable methods to upgrade one’s skillset. They are commonly backed by renowned universities and/or taught by leading industry professionals. I can get a “nanodegree” in Machine Learning Engineering from Udacity, with job guarantee options or performance-based tuition refunds, starting at $199 per month. With a few of these courses and enough elbow grease, it is not unheard of to land high-paying software development jobs.

There are even formidable free options, such as Khan Academy, which has been an excellent supplemental source for my math classes. I can take a summer linear algebra course for about $2,500 at UTD, or I can take it for free on Khan Academy, with all of the lectures available in video format, on-demand. Universities should continue to take cues from the efficiency, configurability and leveraging of technical resources that these web courses offer. Organizations looking to fill positions should also consider seeking individuals that have developed skills through non-traditional means, especially as they diversify their curriculums; hopefully, this competition will force traditional universities to evolve at a more rapid pace.

Yes, all Americans should go to college. Yes, American higher education is in need of improvement in a myriad of areas. It needs to become more efficient, preceding education must be improved and college should be a dynamic environment that produces specialists who have increasingly granular control over their educational content. Our populace should have imbued in them an increased ability to critically reason about and engage the world we live in, increased health and generosity. I still believe the American education system is uniquely qualified to be the system that produces those individuals if we demand it to adapt.