It seems to be fashionable of late to malign the value of a college education.  Tech pundits like Peter Thiel is offering bright students a pile of cash to either not go to school, or to drop out and start a company.  For some really bright people, this approach might make perfect sense, but to suggest it in general is incredibly shortsighted. It’s undeniable many, many people waste their opportunity when they go to college.  They go to the wrong schools, for the wrong reasons without putting thought into what could be a critical investment. Some, by poor instruction, disability, or simply lack of motivation, go without enough of an educational foundation to gain anything from college. The main thrust of most of the bulk of the counterarguments ultimately comes down to “It costs too much”, “You can learn all those things outside of college”, “Most people don’t work in the fields they get their degree in anyway” All true, all well documented, and all ultimately misdirection.

All these criticisms, in my opinion are aimed at implementation issues, rather than the idea of University learning itself. A coworker made this point best, and to paraphrase him, college, at its best, is academic boot-camp. I’d call it a short term sacrifice to make a long term gain. At its best, getting a college degree is a chance to dive deep into knowledge that the needs of today would never afford. It’s a chance to learn how to write with grace, and to construct well thought out arguments. Most importantly, it’s the one time in most peoples lives when they can dive deeply enough into learning that they can uncover ideas that will induce a paradigm shift.

So why doesn’t it work out that way? Everyone wants to blame one thing which, in my opinion, is why the discussion is all hand wringing and no progress. The truth is more layered. The cost of a college education is undeniably increasing quickly. Among American Institutions, you have increasing number of (often wealthy) foreign students attending. Then there’s the fact that lots of people treat college as a four year party, interrupted only briefly by classes and studying. Top notch researches aren’t always the best instructors, which puts a greater teaching burden on TA’s and graduate students. To top it off a college education is no longer a guaranteed ticket to employment, if it ever was. There are a host of other problems with how the higher education system currently functions.

So why defend the system? In the end, there are some things that just require a lot of time and immersion to learn.  It’s certainly possible to learn these things by oneself, but for most people carving out enough time to do so is hard. Our society is full of distractions, add on the mental load of career employment and most people don’t have the mental discipline left to push themselves through college level material requiring hours of study to master. Generally people’s skill in their career generally appreciate in value over time, post high school is the cheapest time to make an investment in the future. Wait too long, and most people won’t be able to afford the time when our the value of our  that would ultimately make them better employees, citizens, and human beings. Pragmatically, getting a degree immediately after high school means sacrificing time when most people’s skills and employment value are at their lowest.

On top of these pragmatic reasons College campuses are still a breeding ground for creativity.  They’re a place for people to collaborate  and rub elbows with other intelligent people without the time pressure of the workplace  Many successful startups and business have been created from connections created, and research done on the grounds of Universities.  Even Thiel’s Paypal had it’s roots on University Drive adjacent to Stanford. This unstructured collaboration and research often pays dividends in personal connections made, even if the student doesn’t end up working in their original field of study.

Higher education certainly doesn’t have to be that path for everyone.  There is a shortage of skilled tradesman and there are plenty of other paths including self education, and entrepreneurship for young people to develop into knowledgeable adults. None of these things changes the fact that for many people, a college degree is still a great investment. In short, lets not get hasty and throw away a great thing to resolve some implementation issues.

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