The Real Value of a College Education
BY BOB AND JUDITH WRIGHT
When the recent celebrity college admissions cheating scandal broke out, many people were surprised or at least taken aback. Wealthy celebrities paying off coaches and test-takers to vouch for their child’s performance (and in some cases even taking SATs for the student)? It sounded unfair, elitist, and just plain wrong—especially the athletic scholarships for non-athletes!
But the truth is, forms of “buying your way into a great school” have been happening practically since the advent of higher education. Most of us barely bat an eye at the idea of someone donating money to a college or reaching out to our connections to pave the way for kids or grandkids to attend our beloved alma mater.
Was the shock of the college scandal just because this type of buy-in was so overt? It certainly felt a little more like bribery, especially when the kids that got into the schools weren’t even admitted under the illusion of competency and performance.
One thing’s for sure, the college scandal gave us all pause to examine the value of formalized education versus life-long learning. What’s the real value of a college education?
Why We Value Prestige
The two of us, and especially Bob, admit that we’re as guilty as the next person when it comes to being impressed by degrees from elite universities. The truth is, both of us have our undergraduate and master’s degrees from state universities and our doctorates from a little-known school. Yet, in talking about our graduate university, we often brag and boast about our fellow faculty members who have degrees from Ivy League schools.
When someone says they’re a “Doctor,” we automatically assign more weight to their opinions. As the old joke goes: Do you know what they call the guy who graduated last in his PhD program? “Doctor.”
There’s a certain amount of clout – and, yes, prestige – that comes along with a name like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, MIT, or Stanford. Yet, both of us formed our foundational values and higher-level critical thinking skills during our time at humble state schools. The values and thoughts that have driven innovation in our organization and throughout our career success came from those grit-building experiences during our years at state colleges.
So why do we buy into the hype like everyone else? Socially we’ve all learned to assign importance to titles, degrees, and the names of certain elite schools. When someone says they’re a “Doctor,” we automatically assign more weight to their opinions. As the old joke goes: Do you know what they call the guy who graduated last in his PhD program? “Doctor.”
Not to say there isn’t value in education at elite schools – the value is in the fellow students who elevate the level of discussion and learning in classes and the occasional cutting-edge faculty – but none of that guarantees great learning, which is available in a host of good schools with dedicated faculty and students.
Whether we’re parents or grandparents, we need to offer balance and perspective to help the younger generation discover what is valuable about getting an education and what isn’t. It’s not about prestige – it’s about experience. Experience helps you build a remarkable life; prestige, on the other hand, doesn’t guarantee an amazing future. A formalized, institutional education can contribute significantly to a prosperous life, but there are many ways to have an outstanding education without compromising your integrity.
Most parents and grandparents want their kids to learn values. We want them to have life experience. We hope they learn grit, tenacity, and independence. At the same time, we socially acclimate them to assign value to factors like grades and athletic achievements. We want our kids to go to a prestigious college and do well because some of us believe it proves our parental successfulness. But does it really? Furthermore, if all we focus on is the status and reputation of an “elite school”, are we really acting from authentic motivation?
John Rosemond, in an article in the United Airlines Hemispheres magazine, really drives this point home and raises an intriguing question.
Would you rather raise a child who grows up to be (a) an honest, ethical, family-centered person who works on an assembly line, or (b) a habitually dishonest, amoral narcissist who’s the CEO of a big corporation?
If your answer is (a), then answer this: Which child would you brag more about?
What’s the Real Point of College?
So then, what’s the purpose of an education? What is the real value of a college experience when all is said and done? And more importantly: what is life really about?
Career, money, and success are all fine. Of course we want our kids and grandkids to be successful. But at the end of the day, the point of college is to learn and discover who you really are. The real value of a college education is that we carry the experience with us for the rest of our lives. Our experience, self-discovery, and education can never be lost or taken from us.
Many students have very little idea what they want to become. College gives them a chance to experiment with many different paths and topics.
To be honest, the idea of going to college with a major field of study already selected limits the student’s learning horizon. Many students have very little idea what they want to become. College gives them a chance to experiment with many different paths and topics. It’s about discovering the way the world works and how to grow into an independent adult. In many careers these days, a major doesn’t matter as much as the completion of a degree. Employers know there’s huge value in the college experience.
So, if we’re worried about getting our kids into a prestigous school, it may be time to examine our parenting and/or our role as a grandparent. Are we simply aiming for our kids to attend a high quality, elite school because we think it’s reflective of how well we’ve parented and the kind of parent we are? Are we concerned about our family name and legacy? Are we looking for proof that our child is learning? Succeeding? In this age of helicopter parenting and failure-to-launch children, it seems that many parents are over-engaged and more involved in their kids’ lives than they are in their own happiness and satisfaction. Families have lost the point of education with the drive to get into top schools. There are actually more good schools than any one of us can name. They are all places to get a very good education.
Education is a Lifelong Pursuit
It’s important that we all realize that education doesn’t end with college – it’s never too late to get an education. If you find you’re pressuring kids or grandkids to get an education simply because you feel you missed out on a critical element of the educational experience, take a step back and look at what you’re actually hoping to extract from the experience.
Recently, we were talking to a young man who hasn’t finished college yet but has enjoyed quite a bit of success. He has saved enough money that he could take a couple of years off of work and live on his savings. He started school down south, and, now, he’s moving to New York, switching schools, and starting a new business—all because he’s afraid of “falling behind.”
We asked, “Falling behind whom? In what race are you falling behind, and what are the real reasons you’re going to school?” There’s an emphasis these days for young people to continue to push themselves to get into a prestigious college, to be inventive entrepreneurs, and earn millions before they turn thirty. People are forgetting about what makes a quality life and what makes quality relationships. Research says it is living a meaningful life of learning, growing, and serving.
While there’s nothing wrong with early success, it’s also important that young adults realize that there’s much life to be lived in your twenties that has nothing to do with earning your first million. People need to form relationships and learn to live life. As an older generation, we can often offer insight and perspective on the importance of not rushing through life and certainly not rushing to a career. Bob was fortunate on this. His father encouraged a liberal arts education and study in Germany and France—all with no pressure.
Too often, we put ourselves under such pressure to smooth the way for our children and keep them from struggling; yet, the experience of struggling builds grit and strength. Often, we focus on the areas in which we struggled and attempt to shield our kids from those same struggles, attempting to protect them from the pain we experienced. However, it’s also important that we look at what those challenges taught us.
Both Bob and I have a liberal arts and classical education bias because it builds experience and expands critical thinking. It’s an important component to understanding the world around us and to developing emergent thinking. When you ask people the purpose of education, many will answer “getting a great job”. But the truth is, getting a job is easy; having an education that helps you learn how to reason and think is becoming increasingly rare.
Studies show that grit, perseverance, and resilience contribute to success. We have to learn how to figure stuff out, troubleshoot, try, and err. By insulating our kids from these experiences, they’re missing out on opportunities to formulate these critical skills. As humans, we actually learn the most from failure. From a neuroscience perspective, our neurons must repeatedly experience challenge and even failure to grow.
Ultimately, it’s our role as parents, and especially grandparents, not to push or even pave the way for our kids to get into the “best school” out there, but to model the values and gifts that education can give. We can show those around us what a lifelong love of education and a dedication to learning look like.
It’s important to support, rather than push. One student we worked with had a granddaughter who had been unable to go to college. On the night before the granddaughter left for school, her father decided that she “wasn’t ready” and wouldn’t allow her to attend. The grandfather was deeply disturbed by this and decided to help his granddaughter establish an educational foundation by enrolling her in our Wright Foundation Year of More program. During that time, she was able to grow and discover so much about herself. She’s now enrolled in a college here in Chicago with her grandfather’s support, flourishing despite her father projecting his own low self-esteem onto her. Thanks to her grandfather’s intervention, she’s now on a more confident path.
Others struggle because they weren’t raised in families who value education. Maybe they’re first-generation college students, having to navigate the system on their own. This is often not because their families don’t want to support them, but simply because they don’t have the experience. For them, simply emotional support and guidance can be of huge value as they navigate new waters.
College isn’t just about getting a job or setting students up for their future career. College is about fulfilling aspirations and dreams. Not the dreams of parents and grandparents, but the dreams of students.
For more on pursuing your dreams and living a life of purpose, please visit www.wrightfoundation.org. In the Chicago area, join us for an upcoming networking event or our More Life Training, a wonderful opportunity to connect with other lifelong learners.
About the Authors – Judith and Bob Wright
“The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.Judith Wright and Dr. Bob Wright, are a husband/wife duo and Chicago-based relationship counselors. They are award-winning authors and trainers and have appeared on numerous TV and radio programs including ABC’s 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, the Today Show, the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Marie Claire, Better Homes and Gardens, and Vanity Fair. They are the co-authors of “The Heart of the Fight: A Couples Guide to 15 Common Fights, What They Really Mean & How They Can Bring You Closer.