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The Real Value of a College Education


Apr 15 2013
Why Christians might challenge the view of college as an investment

All over the country, 17- and 18-year-olds are nervously awaiting college admissions' decisions. I remember my own chagrin in April of my senior year when, after tearing into a thin envelope from the University of Virginia, I learned I'd been wait-listed.

However, with increasing tuition costs (on average, $30,000/year for private colleges and $22,000/year for public universities), we're rethinking the value of a college education. It's well-proven that you don't need a college degree to make money. Just look at Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and even more recently, Nick D'Aloisio—a 17-year-old who sold his news-reading app to Yahoo for millions. If money were the only consideration, college may not be the best choice for today's young people.

Peter A. Thiel, himself a graduate of Stanford, lures bright, young entrepreneurs away from college with a two-year, $100,000 fellowship. The first Thiel fellows graduate this spring with real-world experience in launching businesses and pursuing research interests — a gain greater, some think, than letters behind one's name. Tony Wagner, an education specialist and author of Creating Innovators: Young People Who Will Change the World, champions this alternative view of education. He pushes for less emphasis on content and more on curiosity and creativity.

"Every young person will continue to need basic knowledge, of course," explained Wagner in a recent New York Times article. "[But] young people who are intrinsically motivated — curious, persistent, and willing to take risks — will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own — a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear."

In an economy where creativity and curiosity can trump core content knowledge, traditional college education can easily be viewed as an investment of diminishing returns. If college is merely a pragmatic means of securing a set of marketable skills — and a salary — then perhaps Thiel, Wagner, and the rest are right. There are cheaper, more efficient ways than college to get a job, especially as tuition steadily increases faster than the rate of inflation. But as Americans, and as Christians, we must also ask ourselves: What do we believe to be the value of higher education? Is there something more?

Historically, religious leaders in the U.S. promoted higher learning. Standing on the backs of the Reformers and their commitment to education, our Puritan fathers founded such prestigious academic institutions as Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. Mark Noll notes in the opening chapter of his book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, "Of the many striking features of the Puritans, one of the most remarkable was their zeal in developing a Christian mind."

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