grumpy about the value of education (but I’m still glad I went to Oberlin)

A facebook buddy recently posted a link to an article (or maybe it’s a toss-off blog?) published in the Business Insider, entitled “20 Prestigious Colleges That Offer an Ugly Return on Your Investment.”  The tag line: “Save your money and get a GED.”  The article basically compares the amount one spends on a BS to the salary one earns in the years beyond, and it identifies the colleges where you just don’t earn enough money money MONEY from your desk job to make the degree worth your while. I know, I know, I’m being simplistic, but whatever. So is the article, and I think I’ve captured the point of it. Anyone who gets a secondary degree beyond the BS is excluded from the analysis; anyone who’s not employed for a wage or salary (self-employed peeps, consultants, business owners) is excluded.

Some of the schools are big, some are small liberal arts colleges.  All are referred to by the article as “the dismal schools on this bad-value list.” I scanned the comments section briefly —

I should never read comments sections. It’s always a mistake, because it’s a naked reminder that the world is full of so many unoriginal, self-righteous, judgmental, inarticulate people. They are just like me, which is a realization that unravels the lifeline I cling to when I think of humanity, a lifeline that tells me the world must contain billions of people who are better, smarter, wiser, and saner than me, because otherwise we are in serious trouble.

I just finished working out and I’m losing my train of thought easily. I was saying something, give me a second. Okay, so the point is, my alma mater is number 1 on the list for bad returns. Way to go, Oberlin College! Exploding fist pumps, chest bumps, and woot-woots all around please. I’m cabbage-patching right now. Right now as I type. Because I never knew that Oberlin is “prestigious.” Whoa!

Anyone who actually studied and graduated from a place like Oberlin can argue (annoyingly and persistently, if you’re a typical Obie) about what’s wrong with this article’s simplistic analysis. It didn’t control for career choice. The one-dimensional focus on money reflects some very sad and shallow values in our culture. The exclusion of some highly lucrative fields that require secondary degrees (lawyers, for instance) also seems like a serious limitation. Yadda yadda on all that – this is a “business” article, not an economist-style broader point of view when it comes to utility and value.

I think the more interesting analysis would compare a student’s own expectations of future income to his or her actual return.  That would be a more meaningful indicator to me of whether a school is coming through for its grads. I’m saddened to think that smart high-schoolers will look at an article like this and be swayed, pulled even further into the stunted view that money alone is what should drive our choices, is what makes an accomplishment like a college degree worthwhile.

On the up side, as I think about my rather narrow circle of Oberlin acquaintances, I can’t help but be proud of who we are, despite the “dismal” school we graduated from. There was quite a bit of liberal-arts-degree-bashing among the comments to the article, but that is seriously lame. My buddies, who got degrees in all sorts of liberal arts topics, are diverse and amazing. Off the top of my head, among the 30 or so people I’ve stayed in touch with I can count one or more of each of these: economist, statistician, professor, doctor, nurse, writer, translator, lawyer, musician, primary education teacher, botanist, biologist, visual artist, tech peep, social advocate, architect, business consultant, TV producer. We’re not plain vanilla. Some of us make a lot of money. All of us probably could make a lot of money if we wanted to. I know I could, because I once did. I was also miserable, constantly pissed off, overworked, and a jerk. My colleagues affectionately called me Snarla, and it was people who seemed to like me who coined that.

Anyway, I find myself coming back again and again to the article’s exclusion of grads who went on to secondary degrees. It seems to me that this is a huge bias, and embedded in it is an anti-education message. I can’t explain why — and today I don’t feel like parsing through the connections in my mind — but it reminds me of two topics my mom used to talk with me about a lot. On the one hand, she would tell me that I needed to be educated, because other than killing me or destroying my brain, no one could ever take that away from me. It would go with me wherever I had to run. As a survivor of the Japanese occupation, World War II, and the Korean War, as a person who fled to the south of Korea from the north as a child, Mom and her family knew all about losing everything. She pressed this point upon me at every opportunity.

At the same time, she would ruminate about the communist revolutions in China and Russia, as well as revolutionary movements during Korea’s history. She would tell me that the real danger in a revolution is that revolutionary leaders will take out the educated, intellectual elite first, and also artists, because those are the most dangerous people – they can’t be brainwashed, they think for themselves, and they speak. I guess I feel like I’m seeing a less violent but more insidious form of that in America now. Our culture looks down on people who obtain advanced degrees, whether those degrees are scientific or leaning toward the philosophical. We’re snobs, elitists, know-it-alls, whose (hypothetically) well-informed opinions have less weight than the empty, angry chatter of a word-slinging ho like Rush Limbaugh. You put a Ph.D. on TV and list her educational credentials, you might as well overdub whatever she says next with “YAAAAAWN.” You put a rich man on TV and say “he’s rich!” — and suddenly he’s worth listening to. It’s sad.

I don’t want my kids to abandon a commitment to education for a commitment to money. I will always prefer a brained elite to a moneyed elite.

One thought on “grumpy about the value of education (but I’m still glad I went to Oberlin)

  1. Great points all. Learning how to learn along with a focus on the classic themes of life that have been a part of human experience since the beginning of recorded history — that is the liberal arts education. That is how good decision makers (who may or may not make a lot of money) and good citizens are developed.

    I remember talking to your Mom who is a formidable advocate of education and its power. She said that in life everything can be taken from you except what you have learned. She’s right.

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