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The actual value of a college education

Susan Notes:

Yes, this column has an elitist tone. I'd rather be on the side of the intellectually elite than the money grubbers, the people controlling the discussion about college attendance these days.

I speak as someone with a marketplace useless Masters Degree in medieval literature. I took that degree to New York City and got a very low-paying job as a typist at an advertising agency. Yes, I was fortunate: In those days the public supported the University of California system and my tuition was something like $100 a year. So I entered my career with no debt.

Oct. 7, 2014

By Richard Cohen

I never went to college to make money. (A totally successful business plan, by the way.) Instead, I went for an education. (Another totally successful business plan.) To fulfill a requirement, I took anthropology, and I have kept up with it ever since. I reveled in political science and history of all kinds, and I felt for a long time that I had discovered all the secrets of life in psychology, although its Freudian variety left me cold. The id never made much sense to me.

I value my education, but I cannot put a value on it. I know it has been worth some money to me -- I don’t think The Post would have hired me if I had lacked a degree — but I probably could have earned about the same if I had stayed in the insurance business, where I worked while going to college at night. In fact, had I moved from claims to sales -- no degree required, just, as Arthur Miller put it, "a smile and a shoeshine" --I could be downright rich. As it is, I am downright comfortable.

What prompts these observations is the barrage of news stories about the cost of college and whether it is worth it. Almost all these stories, most of them based on some report, answer with a money sign ($) but almost never in terms of education -- knowledge, wisdom and, if I may be so bold, the pursuit of happiness. (Business majors are the most bored by their jobs, a recent poll found.) We learn that the cost of college has skyrocketed, that the average graduate goes out into the world with $33,000 in student debt, that entry-level jobs pay almost nothing, that the job market is tight and that Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal, created something called the Thiel Fellowship to award money to young people to quit college and start their own businesses. Thiel is ranked No. 293 on the Forbes 400. I rank him No. 1 for questionable ideas.

As Naomi Schaefer Riley pointed out in a perceptive Post article in 2011, some of this is the fault of colleges and universities. They have done away with core curriculums and required courses. I know graduates of supposedly quality schools who have learned next to nothing . . . about American history, world history or literature. They are self-schooled in the plots of their generation’s TV shows, which doesn’t even prepare them to be screenwriters, since what they do know has already been done. If they feel that college is not worth the money, they have a point. They can stay home and watch reruns.

We should not be surprised that the value of a college education is measured only in economic terms. Everything is. In August, Josh Barro wrote for The New York Times that if the airline passenger behind him did not want him to recline his seat, that person should pay him. I have some basic questions. On the bus or subway, should I ask the pregnant woman standing before me how much she would pay for my seat? Barro calls this a matter of property rights. I call it civility, manners, consideration.

I apply my own set of metrics to my college education. I met some wonderful people, particularly fellow students who were so much more sophisticated and worldly than I was. I had some great teachers, one of whom became a mentor and taught me how to suffer criticism. (I'm still suffering.) Whole worlds opened up to me -- philosophy, which I never would have read had I not been forced to; the clotted verses of Chaucer; and, of course, the aforementioned anthropology, both cultural and physical. The latter had me going from desk to desk. Upon each was placed a human skull. I had to determine the sex, the race and the age. I went five for five. This is not the kind of thing you’re likely to do on the job.

I came of age when jobs were plentiful and college not exorbitantly expensive. I graduated with debt, but it was manageable, and I set off to do something I loved -- journalism. I had tried my hand at it in college. I know things have changed and I do not dismiss today's economic conditions. But I tell you this -- college made me a happier person. I don’t know what that’s worth in dollars, but I know what it is worth to me: everything.

— Richard Cohen
Washington Post



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