What is a college education for?

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, February 24, 2016, 10:18 PM | comments: 0

One of the big things that Bernie Sanders is pushing for is a government subsidy for college education. I don't particularly agree with this idea, but not because of the cost (though frankly that's not a pro either). My issue is more that I'm not confident that it solves any specific problem.

The issue of the value of college has always been colored by my own experience, as are most things, obviously. In the 90's college was sold to people my age as a means to a better future, and vaguely as a means for career training. Mind you, it was still understood to be a fair amount of work to complete in four or so years, but it was supposed to lead to a better future. The salaries of people who had college degrees were on average higher as well, so there was truth to the theory. In fact, the income gap between high school and college graduates has been increasing for decades (adjusting for inflation).

Pew did research about this a couple of years ago, and it's a valid conclusion that college = better pay. However, the study I read also said that the difference in pay varied based on occupation, and the summaries at least did not seem to account for location. To me, that means that college isn't the only factor affecting income. If that weren't enough, I learned working in Seattle that an entire group of people who were graduating high school around 1998 or so didn't go to college at all, and still did pretty well for themselves, in technology areas as you would expect.

If those anecdotes aren't enough, there have been discussions in one of my majors, radio and TV, since I was in school about the role of college in preparing people for a specific career. One of my friends and classmates is now a professor for the evolved version of that major, and they're still trying to figure it out. Even more surprising is that in software development, many of the best people I've worked with didn't go to school, or majored in completely different areas (including myself).

So what am I getting at here? I'm not even sure. I'm not really trying to draw any conclusions. What I'm trying to understand is where the return on investment is for college education. We can probably draw some obviously conclusions that it's better for a doctor than it is for an art major (though knowing a few young doctors and veterinarians, that ROI is pretty far off). More to the point, I'm interested in knowing if simply throwing money at the problem means more people are lifted to middle class or better lives.

In the context of the political debate, I understand it to mean that more people in college means more people making better money. If college is only one factor, and location, vocation and market demands aren't factored into it, subsidizing college doesn't strike me as an efficient way to get more people into better wages. In fact, if you put more college graduates out there, doesn't that change the entire market dynamic of skill demand? I'm not an expert, it just seems like this is another over-simplification of another complex problem. It's not clear to me what college is supposed to achieve, and that seems like an important thing to understand before pursuing this kind of solution. If cost is the issue, then like healthcare, why aren't we looking at the cost issue first?


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