The Cost of Education

It sounds pessimistic, but I often say that a college education is the only thing a person will pay for and be happy not to get.  Compare the following monologues and try to imagine a person saying each:

“I know I saved up a long time for this vacation, but I’m getting really tired of it.  It’s so much work to walk to the pool and it takes up so much time. Going to all of the attractions I paid for is boring.  I hope the tour guide I hired doesn’t show up to take me to the next street fair.  That would be such a relief.  I already paid the bill, but that money’s gone anyway, so it would be great if I have to enjoy as little as possible.”

Now replace the vacation references to education ones:

“I know I saved up for a long time for tuition, but I’m getting really tired of college.  It’s so much work to learn and it takes up so much time. Learning this stuff is boring. I hope the professor doesn’t show up today to teach more.  That would be such a relief.  I already paid my tuition, but that money’s gone anyway, so it would be great if I have to learn as little as possible.”

It’s almost impossible to imagine an actual person saying such negative things about a vacation (except maybe a teenager dragged along by parents).  Not only is it entirely possible to imagine someone making the negative comments about education, you may actually recognize it as the attitude of many students.

The question is: why do students feel this way?  Why are they willing to invest their own or their parents’ money, a chunk of their lives and their futures into an education that they don’t want to do the work to get?  In part, it’s an issue of maturity, but I suspect that it’s because they are paying to get a degree as entrée into a career rather than an education to shape their lives and expand their minds.

I can’t say it’s their fault.  Every advertisement I have seen for an educational institution recently has bellowed, “Come here where you don’t have to take a lot of courses where you’ll learn extra stuff, get out fast, get a job.”  Even current political and media discussions on education have focused on its value for preparing future employees for our global economy.  Preparing students for their careers is an admirable endeavor.

But students don’t walk out of a university to become workers 100% of their time.  They will become citizens, volunteers, members of communities, parents, and caretakers; ideally they will be well-rounded, thinking, contributing human beings.  Their education should offer them insight and knowledge for all of these roles.  That requires investment—not only in money, but also in learning, effort and self-dedication.  None of that will happen if they only see value in getting a degree to get a job.

I’ve been searching for a solution to this problem in my classes, trying to educate students about the value of an education, but really the answer has to be much broader than any changes that can be made on a class-by-class basis.  What do you think?




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