Sunday, July 29, 2012

What is higher education worth?

Colleges and universities, whether public or private, receive substantial financial aid from cities, states, and the federal government. In Boston, someone has calculated that Northeastern University receives $182 million in public support. In these days of budget constraints for all levels of government, someone is bound to come around and ask: is this money well spent?
In response, Northeastern studied its contributions to the greater Boston area. The study concludes that Northeastern's contribution is at least $340 million. Its list of benefits includes: "public open space, better informed citizens, higher voter turnout, free facilities for the public, job creation, social and economic mobility, scientific breakthroughs, educating the workforce and developing the community."
I am sure that officials at Northeastern University are well aware that a college or university education has many other benefits, which are, however, not so easily measured in dollars and cents. It is not possible to put a money value on people having better lives because they are more articulate, more self-aware, and better informed about what goes on in the world. Well educated people are better able to find answers to questions. If they encounter problems, it is easier for them to either find solutions themselves or consult someone who will be able to help them out. Educated people are capable of being more thoughtful about their lives. They are likely to make better choices for themselves, their families and the community.
The educated tend to be more politically active; they are better informed and, thus, likely to make better choices.
Education offers many sources of pleasure. Being acquainted with literature and music and the arts expands one's awareness of the world and expands the sources of satisfaction. It provides new avenues for self-expression.
One cannot put a dollar value on any of that.
Northeastern's account of its contribution to community well-being illustrates a very negative trend in our world: every day the values of things are more likely to be expressed in money terms. Values that cannot be translated into dollars and cents tend to be left aside or forgotten. We tend to say that they are "subjective" and then not pay any attention to them. More and more, the things that can be bought and sold are considered important. What cannot be paid for in the official currency is overlooked.
Our outlook on the world is thereby seriously impoverished. People go to college to get a better job, to earn more money. No one talks about college as opening wider perspectives on life's possibilities. No one seeks to provide students with a better work life – that satisfies, that strengthens pride and self-esteem, that yields more productive community members and earns them the respect of their neighbors.
How long will it be before people calculate whether it is economically preferable to have children or to remain childless, whether it is economically efficient to place your aging parents in a nursing home or to take care of them at home? How long before parents will realize that they do not profit from spending money on a good education for their children, and then refuse to finance college or graduate school? Soon citizens may decide that there is no money in voting or participating in their communities, that going to church is a waste of your time which would be better spent earning money. We have been saying for a long time that "time is money" and now we are taking this more and more seriously.
No wonder many people are depressed, aimless, and addicted to some chemical or another, or to some public entertainment or another. Because, after all, as we also have been saying for a long time, “money doesn't buy happiness.”