Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Why you should consider going to college

I didn't go to college. I know a lot of people in the homeschool community who are down on college, or at least want to tear down the idea that everyone should go to college. I run across articles that argue along these lines. And in general these articles make me angry. Not everything they say is wrong, but a lot of it is.
I want to address one line of thinking that I hear a lot. This actually seems to be a pretty widely held misconception. It often shows up in secular discussions of the economics of education as well. It's the idea that college is supposed to prepare you for a well-paying job.
In some ways, this is not a bad way to think about college. It can be worthwhile to analyze education in terms of return on investment, which could be one factor in determining whether you can afford to go to college (or to a particular school). However, it is commonplace to find people making the leap that ROI is the only way to value education.
Which is completely insane.
(The next place this conversation usually goes is how they remember doing things in school that they “never used” after school. Something like factoring polynomials. This demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what education is.)
Here's the thing, the value of education is to be educated. That's it. Can it help you get a better job? Yes. Is that the only way it can help you? No. A thousand times no. It enriches your life in innumerable ways. It enriches your daily experiences by increasing your understanding of the world around you. It enriches your leisure by making deeper, more subtle works of art and literature accessible to you. It enriches your personal relationships by lifting your powers of personal expression and empathy. It prepares you to understand and engage in public discourse. If you are a Christian, it opens up opportunities to pursue scholarly understanding of the Bible, which has real spiritual value.
The value of obtaining an academic education is to become an educated person, with all that that entails. Any other way of valuing education is reductionistic.
Of course, this lofty ideal of education isn't especially practical. Do you need to be educated? I don't know. There are many roads in life, and they all have their trade offs. Certainly you can go through this life without pursuing education. You can even have a happy life. But what you cannot do is say that education therefore has no value.
If we were to go back several hundred years, in western culture, higher education would be primarily pursued by the upper class. The fact that in our lifetime a college degree is accessible to the majority of the middle class is a singular privilege. Do we have to take advantage of that privilege? No, we do not. But there is an air of ingratitude to act offended when someone assumes you value this opportunity.
Back to the issue of whether we use our education. I've heard countless people talk about how they've never used the algebra they learned in high school. I find this absolutely incredible. Of course you don't sit at work factoring polynomials. The point is that you (hopefully) absorbed the concepts of how math works. No more does your average adult write book reports or apply their middle school history lessons. But these subjects have value. They have value in informing us about the world around us, and they have value in preparing us for more advanced studies in their respective fields. Even if you did not retain the particular details, exposure to the material should significantly alter the way you understand the world.
I've know comp-sci grads to say they never use any computer science when programming. At this point I simply throw up my hands. Do I calculate big-O costs for functions that I write? No. Does understanding big-O affect the way I approach programming problems, evaluate libraries, and diagnose performance problems? Yes, every day. Knowing the theory can have profound implications in practice.
So now I want to say a word about vocational education. It exists. My apprenticeship was a vocational education in programming. I later supplemented it with theory as best I could through self-study. But there are lots of vocational learning opportunities, and they are not just in blue collar fields. (They aren't available in every field for obvious reasons.)
Should you choose a vocational or an academic education? This is a highly personal question. There are benefits and downsides to both. A vocational education will lead you directly into a particular job market, meaning it will be more straightforward to find a job. Of course, if you don't know what job you want, a vocational school isn't really an option.
Does having a college degree result in higher pay? It totally depends. If you get a liberal arts degree (which is basically the enriching part of a college education without any particular vocational focus) then probably not. Does a programmer with a bachelor degree get paid more than one of similar self-taught skills? Not that I can tell. Does a programmer with a masters degree have more, higher paying opportunities? My guess is that they do.
In fact it probably has more to do with what calibre of work you want to be doing than how much you want to get paid. Get your masters and go into AI research or cryptanalysis. My own options are limited here. However, find yourself the right niche as a consultant and you could probably make 3x what the AI guy makes doing something far less interesting but without any credentials whatsoever. How does this work in other industries? I have no idea.
An academic education is designed to expose you to new things and enrich you as a person in addition to preparing you for your career path. A vocational education only does the latter. That's just restating what I've been saying the whole time, but my point here is that this is the core trade-off. On the one hand, you get all this extra education. On the other hand, you don't have to be bothered by getting educated. I can totally see both sides.
As far as cost, yes, the vocational path is almost certainly cheaper. I believe there are high end vocational schools in the arts (design, acting, etc) that are even more expensive than college. In general though, vocational training will be both cheaper up front and start paying for itself more quickly.
If you desire to work at the cutting edge of your chosen industry, the path to doing that most likely lies through an academic education.
These are not the only factors to consider in making this decision. There are benefits (and, I'm sure, downsides) to the college social environment. The larger pool of peers. The well trod path to personal independence. A simple, easy answer to the perennial question “where did you go to school?”
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons for you to consider the vocational route, and I have total respect for those of you who (like me) make that choice. But please, do not tell yourself (or others) that the alternative is worthless.

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