Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Questioning The Value Of Higher Education

There's been a lot of buzz about the value of higher education lately. Advocates like Vivek Wadhwa think college still makes sense. Opponents like Peter Thiel are betting against higher education.

The challenge colleges face is that we believe they work - that we're going to be better positioned in the career world after we graduate - but we don't know if that's actually the case. We live in an era where everything can be measured. Someone is going to come up with a way to measure the actual value of a college degree and exploit those measurements. Higher education is screwed the moment someone can make a profit from proving there is a more effective alternative.

From 2002 to 2004, I was in an MBA program at Claremont Graduate University. It was a really good education, but I went to school for all the wrong reasons. Here's a list of assumptions I made before grad school and my experience after graduating:
  • Upon graduation, I will have at least one high paying job lined up.

    I thought an MBA from a good school would open up access to jobs that were unavailable to non-MBAs. I was wrong. After 5 months of living off credit cards and crapping in my shorts from anxiety, the job I found paid less than the job I had before grad school.

  • Upon graduation, I will have access to a powerful network of alumni that will help me conquer the world.

    I wish. The only network you have upon graduation is the one you build yourself. The network of contacts I had were my fellow graduates who, ironically enough, were also looking for work.

  • Upon graduation, alumni from my school will be hungry to hire me.

    Ha! I was able to leverage the alumni network to get some job interviews and introductions to interesting people. However, I had no tangible special skills upon graduation and alumni meetings were just an extremely efficient way to find out I wasn't any more employable than I was pre-grad school.

  • Grad school will prepare me for the working world.

    Grad school taught me how to pay other people to judge me on how I write papers and take tests. I'm pretty sure this is the opposite of how the working world operates.

  • The money I borrow is an investment in my future.

    You know why Sallie Mae loaned me so much money to go to school? It's not because they thought I was a great investment. It's because if I default on the loans, the US government pays Sallie May every dime I borrowed plus interest. Then Sallie Mae gets to double dip and is paid again if they are able to collect any of the money I defaulted on. Luckily I haven't defaulted on my student loans!

  • The school's career center will help me find work.

    Nope. The career center is a place to practice finding work. They help you with mock interviews, writing a resume, etc. I know they wanted to have meaningful career fairs, but it turns out that's a hard thing to do when you're a small school.

The trouble I have with higher education is that it is impossible to predict the value of all the hard work you put into it. What happens if you graduate from medical school with over $150,000 in debt and decide you don't want to be a doctor? What happens if you go to law school and can't pass the bar exam? What if all the assumptions you make about going to college turn out to be wrong? What if you graduate and earn barely more than you owe?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Can you sort out how much your education has contributed to your current success?

    Maybe higher education needs to offer courses about how the work world operates in addition to teaching necessary content. Mine certainly did not. It was all trial and error in the professional and business worlds after graduation. The good news is that the tenacious make it, don't we?

  3. I got my degree in June, 2011. I have since getting the degree had several companies interested in hiring me in the $100,000-$150,000 range (I haven't accepted an offer yet). It seems to help, but, I also have a great deal of work experience to go with that degree. I went back for the degree late in my career. The debt from getting the degree is significant however.