Preliminary Questions

There has been a growing debate about the value of a college education. That debate takes two basic forms. The most prominent is an argument that the rising costs of higher education are making college years less cost-effective–that what you get really isn’t worth what you pay. There is also a growing “movement” of young people who decide to drop out to pursue more “creative” endeavors, who want to emulate folks like Bill Gates and other wildly successful internet entrepreneurs who made their billions without dilly-dallying around a college campus for four long years. (Yesterday’s New York Times had an article about several of them.)

The young people who are impatient to be the next Big Thing have always been around. The truly gifted among them will be successful; the others will find jobs or return to school or do whatever it is that such young folks have always done.  College affordability, on the other hand, is a genuine issue, and requires our attention (and probably some unwelcome-to-college-administrators interventions).

I don’t claim to know what measures to take to make higher education more affordable. But I do know that we need to preface that discussion with one that addresses what trial lawyers like to call “a preliminary question.”

Preliminary questions are those we need to answer before we can make sense of the answers to subsequent questions. And mine are deceptively simple: what is education? What is it for? How does it differ from job training?

This question is as applicable to elementary and high schools as it is to college, and the answers will have clear policy implications. If–as many parents seem to believe–K-12 education is a consumer good, something one gives ones children in order to advantage them in the marketplace , then sending Junior to a private “academy” may make sense–at least, so long as that private institution provides accurate science and history lessons. If, however, education also has a public dimension, if it includes an emphasis on citizenship and the forging of a unified polity from a diverse population, it may need to be delivered by a public institution.

When we get to the question of university education, differentiating between job training and education becomes much more important, because those are two very different missions, and the conflation of them is in large part responsible for the current woes of academia. In my (admittedly jaundiced) view, there are far too many students on university campuses who really belong at a job-training institution. They have been told that their employment prospects require a diploma, and they are on campus to acquire that credential. They have zero interest in what great minds have pondered in the past, what history might teach us, what we have learned about human interaction and all the other intellectual goods acquisition of which was once the purpose of the university.

Faculty spend far too much time in campus meetings assessing whether the courses we offer will lead to employment and far too little time considering whether those same courses will lead to enlightenment.

If we separated out the institutions offering a credential from the ones offering an education, it would be much easier to assess cost-effectiveness of the former, and it would send a clear message to students considering attendance at the latter.

Mission clarity is an important element of assessment–if you don’t know what you are trying to accomplish, it’s hard to determine whether you’ve accomplished it. Until our institutions of higher education can answer those preliminary questions—until they decide whether they want to be vocational schools or educational venues–arguments about cost and efficacy will continue.


  1. Your definition of a “credential” is somewhat limiting. I consider “education” a credential for anyone who wants to develop a well founded basis for living. It most certainly will assist in any occupation.

  2. A couple of observations on High Scool and college. When I went to college in 1967, we lived in new cement block construction dorms.
    1 Bathroom per Wing. 1 Phone per Wing. Not fancy but safe and clean. They were building fast & furious to house the
    Baby Boom Kids who were (in many cases) going to college to avoid Viet Nam. It was cheap enough that I earned my room & board and tuition by working summers and weekends at the Mobil Station in my home town. I went home each weekend to work as many hours as I could. No loans. No fancy dorms. Then I transferred to UW Madison. There the Profs did little to no teaching. The TA’s, who spoke little real English (Engineering School) did 90% of the “teaching”. I found partying was my real calling and once the draft was out of the way, I got a regular job.
    Running my own small company in Indiana, I saw many people come into my office to fill in application. These Indianapolis men could NOT FILL IN the most simple forms. They could not Read or Write on a basic level. There was NO WAY I could consider them for repair technician jobs. I could see it in their eyes that they knew it was a waste of their time and mine but God bless them they were trying anyway. We MUST EDUCATE High School kids so they are functional in the world. They should have some life skills too. Like HOW to manage a check book. How to budget their
    money. How to fill in a job application. Not everyone needs to be able to sit down and discuss Greek literature but we all need the basics. In my experience, Indiana fails on even the most basic level. Sad Sad Sad.

  3. patmcc. None of those items you mention are on the “achievement” tests, so won’t see the light of day until somebodies besides “the banners waving in the breeze” tackles the problems.

  4. Thank you for bringing up this important idea of preliminary questions for discussion on the ‘value’ of education. Our educational institutions can and should provide numerous functions beyond ‘job training’. One important function, as you noted, should be political socialization turning a group of disparate students into American citizens, one united people instead of groups always afraid of the ‘other’.

    We should also be teaching students how to think for themselves, not just regurgitating facts for an exam. One of my sociology professors used to say that the real purpose of a university education is “crap detection”. Once we are on our own, we need to be able to make rational decisions and not be taken in by hucksters, commercial or political.

    I will offer a nod to DePaul University where I studied and taught. Their computer science school set up a separate entity to run a career change certificate program. It excelled at training and placing students in IT jobs using older skills like COBOL programming where there was a need – which is to say, our program did job training while the university provided a traditional college education. The standard computer science curriculum remained unchanged, except for the infusion of funds from the certificate program students.

    BTW – Bill Gates, having attended an elite prep school, had already spent more time actually working on computers that any Harvard undergraduate would in their entire time on campus – even after going on for their masters degree.

  5. I was in awe of college educated people for many years; till working with a vast number of them who believed, if they didn’t read it in a book it wasn’t worthy of their consideration. Those with college degrees who realized they were to use their brain together with that education to make intelligent decisions, accomplished their goals and taught me much along the way. I am forever grateful for their assistance and educating this high school dropout with a GED. I am 75, deaf and disabled; I have lost count of the number of illiterate, incompetent people I have been forced to deal with on line to straighten out what should have been a simple, basic job for them regarding processing documents of importance to me and countless others they have dealt with. I have used the on-the-job education I received often enough over the past few years to qualify for a part-time legal secretarial job – with no pay. What do others who have no computer do to resolve simple, basic problems which are vital to their daily lives? Benefits of college education at all levels should trickle down from the highly educated to serve others in their chosen field, otherwise that college education and all that money has been wasted.

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