Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Look At It This Way

The Myth of Higher Education

Can you count on a diploma to pay for itself?

Posted Jul 11, 2009

With the cost of a college education going through the roof, what would you tell my grandson to study so he can be sure of getting a good job when he graduates?

If your grandson’s main goal is to get a job, I would suggest he rethink the whole idea of going to college.  There is, it seems, a major cause of confusion in our society because people don’t understand the difference between education and training.  Education is akin to research and development in that one never knows where – if anywhere – it will eventually lead.  It’s certainly a nice luxury if one can afford it and if one has the capacity to grow intellectually but it’s no guarantee of a steady income.  Training, on the other hand, addresses the skills and knowledge necessary to do a job.  Traditionally, advanced education was reserved for just a tiny portion of the population while all others learned a trade and that was often through the apprentice system. 

The idea of four extra years of schooling got started in the late 40’s when a great many first generation college students enrolled in institutions of higher learning.  This wave was mostly the result of WW2 veterans returning home and finding themselves eligible for free tuition…which, in turn, was simply the government’s way of keeping all those able bodies from overwhelming the rapidly swelling labor force.  After that, a newly prosperous middle class and the notion of keeping up with the Joneses fostered a second wave of towns going off to join gowns.  With the value of a free, public high school diploma in tatters, additional waves brought the elephant in the room into sharp focus.  Intellect is not democratically distributed.  It became obvious that not all who are exposed to higher education have the wherewithal to profit as college students attempted to burn down college campuses.  But the idea that earning was somehow tied to learning had by then become firmly entrenched despite the fact that college professors often made less than plumbers.

Of course, there were those who worked their way through school and into monied slots but those were mostly schools that trained for a profession such as colleges of law, medicine, business, engineering, etc.  The following two jokes should make the difference between training and education clear:

Four years ago, I couldn’t spell engineer…now I are one.

This is a readily understandable example of training as opposed to:

I have a Liberal Arts degree…do you want fries with that?

This tells the tale of those who mistakenly equate a good education with a good job.

So what do you tell your grandson?  If a job and the income it will provide are most important, then keep in mind that four years of education will cost not only the tuition and living expenses but four years of lost earnings as well.  Instead, he might want to consider earning a wage while learning a trade and then putting the same cash and credit into starting a business.  Or he might want to consider attending a community college…a hybrid that combines mostly remedial schooling with a form of apprenticeship.  Stick to the readily applicable skills and/or technology classes (nursing and computers, for example) and there might actually be a job available upon graduation.

The bottom line regarding a well-rounded education is that it has nothing to do with any kind of bottom line.  Its value is to be found in the quality that it adds to life.  It allows one to better appreciate music and art, history and literature.  It contributes to a better understanding of language and culture, nature and philosophy.  It expands rather than limits horizons as it replaces faith and belief with reason and logic. Very simply, it teaches one to live…not to earn a living.


About the Author

Stephen B. Mason is a psychologist, a former university professor, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host.

More Posts