College is expensive. We can all attest to that. And for those going to out-of-state or private colleges, it is often twice the price. With constantly rising tuition costs, there has been speculation as to whether or not a college degree is really worth the financial burden. While the new student loan policy announced by President Barack Obama is a start towards lessening this burden, in scope of how big the student loan bubble is expected to be, it is necessary to begin considering whether such a financial burden — for students and for the economy — is ultimately worth it.
In an Oct. 22 New York Times opinion piece , Michael Ellsberg argues that while higher education is good at producing professionals, writers, critics and historians, it isn’t necessarily the best at producing entrepreneurs. He argues that the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs dropped out of college and then went on to invent the iPod. Bill Gates dropped out, only to found Microsoft. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out, and we got Facebook. The co-founders of Twitter were also, you guessed correctly, college dropouts. Now this is a pretty convincing list. These ideas have grown into multi-billion dollar companies and all without a college degree to inspire them.
Ellsberg argues that a college degree is overrated. In no way is a college degree necessary to produce the job creators of society — successful entrepreneurs. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number one job creators in this country are start-ups, not small businesses, as most politicians and lobbyists proclaim (however, start-ups tend to be small so the two are often combined). When it comes to start-ups or entrepreneurship, Ellsberg argues that formal education does little to prepare people.
And, in a way, he has a point. We grow up learning how to ace standardized tests or write a formulaic five-paragraph essay. We don’t learn how to pitch ideas, set up networks of people or build up and manage an organization. And the same continues throughout college. Unless students are specifically in a business program, they don’t get lessons on how to market products, sell things or formulate innovative ideas. Formal schooling doesn’t focus on training students to become innovative entrepreneurs.
Instead of delving into creative ideas and projects, students are bogged down by rigid syllabi and being tested on constricted, narrowly defined subject material. The way most academic classes are set up leaves little room for students’ creativity to flourish. Students fall into the routine rut of papers, assignments and exams. When entering an increasingly competitive job market, communication skills, networking and originality of ideas are just as, if not more, important than being able to answer questions about last week’s reading.
But formal education isn’t structured in a way that supports this — the most practice students get with these skills occurs due to what they do outside the classroom. There is room for improvement. Curriculums and objectives need to be re-evaluated. In addition to having students memorize every carbon molecule structure or all the events of the Cold War, universities should also be teaching them how to communicate ideas, build relations and manage people and situations. Instead of just asking them about how well they know a subject matter, universities should be asking them about what they’d like to create.
While it may be true that colleges and schools in general should do a better job of encouraging and allowing room for creativity, it is naïveté to think that a college education isn’t useful. In a Nov. 4 Washington Post article , David E. Drew, chair for the School of Education Studies at the Claremont Graduate University writes in response to Ellsberg’s column that Jobs and Gates are the exceptions, not the rules. Few people make it that big without a solid educational foundation. Statistics showing that college graduates consistently earn more than non-college graduates reaffirms this point. Moreover, even people like Gates affirm that education is necessary to prepare the American workforce to be competitive. The truth is not all of us will be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Many of us will be the workers that the new start-ups employ. And for those positions, a college education isn’t just desirable, but necessary.
More than writing off the value of a college education as a whole, it is time to re-evaluate what a college education should provide — what you want your education to provide. A college degree still goes a long way, but at upwards of $50,000 per year, just getting the degree isn’t enough. It is about making sure that in addition to the piece of paper and the knowledge, students have learned the creative and communications skills necessary to make them successful workers and entrepreneurs.
Harsha Nahata is an assistant editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.