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May 27th, 2020
What is the value of higher education these days? A fair question that is getting tossed around quite a bit in recent months as the whole enterprise tries to make a difficult pivot in response to current health risks.
Examine first the quality of the question. What are we trying to get at when we ask what is the value of higher education?
Intimately connected with the value of anything – especially that for which you pay for – is the purpose of the thing you pay for. The value of a screwdriver is pretty well related to it’s ability to help you drive screws into a wall. A more expensive screwdriver – the value of it – likely has to do with it’s ability to hold up through time, perhaps with an enhanced metal, or perhaps it has a fancy mechanism for the purpose of quickly switching between different types of bits.
What happens when we return to the subject of education with this question?
What is the purpose of higher education?
Well, it seems to depend. If your goal is to become a surgeon, then higher education is really the only path to explore a way towards that option. The purpose of higher education is pretty clear in this instance. But what about a region of study like literature?
What is the purpose of a literature degree?
The answer doesn’t matter in light of the fact that people would answer this in a variety of ways that span the entire spectrum from positive to negative. Some would scoff at it, claiming it a waste of time and money. While others will swear by the wisdom and exposure to the depth of human nature that can be found within. Still others might claim it has to do with writing.
Do we get such a variety and conflict of opinion when we talk about the purpose of a medical degree?
No, not at all.
This brings to light the first mistake while trying to assess the value or purpose of higher education. It really does depend.
Some goals and achievements have fairly well defined paths, while others do not. Perhaps the thorn stuck in the sole of higher education is the fact that most goals and achievements do not have well defined paths, and thereby resist institutionalization. For example, there is no course nor degree that is going to guarantee fantastic wealth, just as there is no course nor degree that guarantees you’ll gain the ability to write a novel that will endure the harsh test of time. These are achievable goals, but the resist the framework of planning. There is a certain degree of chaos or randomness that simply cannot be anticipated in a meaningful way. Such goals require an evolving process that is capable of responding to the present in a dynamic, flexible way. The hound has no idea if the rabbit went left or right until the hound’s nose gets there and can smell it out. So too is the path of the artist or the entrepreneur. There are perhaps heuristics for honing such flexible skills, but they certainly aren’t taught in higher education, and if they are in any meaningful way, these courses and professors compose a very small niche within a larger framework. One would have to be lucky to find or come across such courses.
An example of this may be a course that Tim Ferriss often talks about. Apparently he took a course called High Tech Entrepreneurship. This is certainly a niche topic, especially when you consider that this was on offer over a decade ago, long before the advent of a platform like Shopify which enables people to create an online store with little hassle.
Many people claim that the purpose of higher education is that you learn how to think, but even with this, we land squarely into the same situation just discussed. You still have to get lucky when it comes to your professors, and the courses they teach. Professors are emphatically not created equally, nor are they equally effective. Some are downright awful. There is the joke about tenured professors being like sea slugs. The joke is that when a sea slug finds a place to settle down permanently like a tenured professor, it then eats it’s own brain because it no longer needs it. The joke wouldn’t exist if there weren’t an infuriating amount of truth under the hood. This is not to take away from the fact that there are astonishingly good professors to be found in higher education – it’s only to say that you still have to get a bit lucky to fall in their lap.
Another claim about the purpose of higher education is that it gives you the room to explore. For the large majority of students, this idea is pure horseshit for one simple reason: the cost. Paying huge amounts of money in order to explore subjects just to be saddled with debt upon graduation while riding on the notion that a student will just curiously stumble upon a fantastic way to use the knowledge imparted by the university to effortlessly pay off these loans is pure fantasy – hence the student debt crisis.
The core problem is that there’s a disconnect between the type of feedback students receive in university, and the type of feedback people receive in the real world. A student would have two vastly different experiences if they were to receive a D- for a business proposal written for a business class, and losing $1,000 of their own money during an attempt to bring the exact same business proposal to life in the real world. And yet, chances are the student still paid $1,000 for the class. The student loses the same amount of money without really learning anything meaningful about the world – a professor’s opinion about a business plan will never –ever- be able to approximate the response of the world to such a business, simply because the markets have the unpredictability, that randomness discussed earlier. If such things could be planned then it would be an ex-professor chilling on a beach in Mexico having gotten rich off of the idea of a fidget spinner. In fact, it makes no sense that business professors even exist because if the principles they teach are so effective, then those professors would be implementing them in order to create the best life possible. Hats off of course to professors who have built extremely successful businesses, or who also operate successful businesses. Chances are these people have something worth listening to. But otherwise, why would a person ever take advice from a business professor who has never built a successful business? A bird might as well learn how to fly by listening to the instruction of a fish.
Higher education certainly is a ripe place for exploration, but not when it has a lead pricetag. The money allocated for such education would probably be better spent as seed money for an individual’s life.
Think of it this way: Here’s four years of education, and at the end of it you have a piece of paper, maybe some applicable knowledge, but you also have tens of thousands of dollars of debt.
Or. Here’s ten thousand dollars, go try to make money. A person can then get a job that requires no qualifications and then just hold steady with some savings. Or, they can allocate half of it to living expenses for a few months and the other half to a business idea, and then if it all fails, they still get the job that requires no qualifications, but they’ll have learned something during the process.
Considering the enormous student population that can’t effectively pay off their student loans, it’s either because they didn’t learn anything valuable enough during that higher education to enable them to pay off those loans, or the whole damn this is a trap, or perhaps even a bit of both. And do note, the word ‘valuable’ in that last sentence refers to what the market deems valuable, not what a person finds personally or emotionally valuable.
The key concept that is missing from this discussion of higher education is the optimal challenge. An optimal challenge creates growth, and this occurs because the challenge is not so difficult that it paralyzes the individual, and it’s hard enough that it forces the individual to move past their comfort zone. What happens to many students who graduate with oddles of debt is that they are suddenly faced with a gargantuan problem that is drastically different than the sort of challenges that are a part of higher education. The size of financial debt pushes this far past optimal, and makes it an extreme challenge, one specifically marked with a particularly insidious factor:
Chronic stress, the variety that often if not always comes with financial difficulties and debt has a reliably negative effect on the way the human brain operates. Chronic stress – to put it very simplistically, quite literally makes an individual dumber. For a thorough understanding of how this happens, Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s book entitled Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is required, non-negotiable reading. It’s simply a fact of human biology that the overwhelming majority of us are going to perform poorly in all sorts of ways if we are saddled with enormous debt. Of course there will be outliers, but to point at such people as examples that anyone can somehow emulate is analogous to criticizing someone for not being taller. Dealing with such stress well, while that exists in some people, is simply not the human default, which means that most people are going to end up crippled with stress.
There are of course strategies that a person in financial distress can adopt in order to clear the effect of such stress on their brain, like meditation and exercise, but this is still besides the point because the situation is still too extreme, and the subject at hand is the value, purpose and effectiveness of higher education, and whether or not it is providing an optimal challenge.
The purpose of higher education most emphatically should not be to plop someone into a situation that is so difficult to recover from that it’s only possible to solve with unusual luck or unusual ability. Unfortunately, not everyone has unusual ability, by default of the fact that such abilities are not usually found.
Higher education might provide an optimal challenge on it’s own terms within it’s own institutional environment, but in the larger context of a person’s life, such optimal challenges are clearly not translating well to the challenges graduates are faced with in a post-school life.
Speaking about these issues on the scale of populations, is ultimately a speculative endeavor. Only on an individual level do these issues ossify into practical points about how to navigate the way forwards.
If an individual has a dream or goal that can only be achieved through the institutional tunnel of higher education, like becoming a doctor, then the path is pretty straight forward. But if such an individual has a goal or a dream that can be achieved in many ways, it’s certainly worth the time and effort to wonder if higher education is the best way to go about that goal. Does it serve an individual’s goal to finally arrive at the beginning of the monopoly board shouldered with debt? ( Even in that cruel game, we start off with money and we get paid just for playing when we pass go. )
If we go back to that example of the individual who uses 10 grand to run a little business experiment, we can see an optimal challenge. Even if the business experiment is a total failure, there are lessons learned. But more importantly, it’s not a huge setback to be at zero. A year of hard work at a base level job can pump the funds back up to try another experiment. A string of failures in this fashion would likely still be far more educational for an individual than our run-of-the-mill MBA. And if one of these experiments actually works in any meaningful way?
Anyone who has a deep interest in their own education eventually realizes that reality is the one true classroom. And in many ways, the classrooms in schools function like an inaccurate warp of the real world. We can get stuck trying to respond to all problems the way they were solved in the classroom, and fail to figure out that there is a whole new set of puzzles to solve outside of the classroom that often require a person to become their own teacher.
While there exist an endless network of people who can teach us and help us with an incredible variety of things, ultimately, success can’t be taught, it’s something each of us has to figure out.
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