Friday, March 30, 2012

The Value of an Education

There's been a lot of talk about money and education lately.  Kent State raising tuition rates.  The rising student loan debt.  Cleveland's school reform.  And that's just this week's list of topics in northeast Ohio.  And there's good reason to talk about the two subjects together; teaching people is expensive, and better educated people tend to make more money over the course of their lifetime.  For this reason, we obviously end up at the question, "What is an education worth?"
If we're talking about extrinsic worth, measured in dollars, there's a huge difference across fields, with a medical degree usually leading to a much higher salary than, say, an art history degree.  Why don't we consider the worth of an education in education, or teachers, since they have been the subject of so many discussions around money and education.  These are individuals who both have an education, and are responsible for educating future generations; if there's a monetary value to an education, we should see that reflected in teacher salaries, because of their dual role in the educational system, right?  In Ohio, teachers must have at least a bachelor's degree, and often a master's degree, depending on the school district.  The average teacher's salary in Ohio is a bit shy of $57,000 annually (wage only), although the does vary across school districts, with many of the school district average salaries being between $40-50,000 annually.
Now let's think of not having a college education.  Just like wages of people with an education, the wages available to those without an education varies quite a bit, although not as large a range.  Minimum wage jobs pay $7.70 in Ohio, and at that pay grade, you would need to work 70 hours a week, or have two people both working full time in a single home, in order to make enough to pay fair market rent in Ohio.  And Ohio is an affordable state; in other states, it can take much more.  At the high end of the scale, manufacturing jobs typically pay $40-50,000 per year, and auto industry jobs pay around $54,000 per year.  These higher pay jobs for those without a college education are the ones that we in Rust Belt want to return and worry over their loss.
That's awfully close to what an average teacher makes, but without any cost associated with education.  That college education isn't cheap, either, and has risen 827% since 1980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  This means that one can go into not insignificant dept obtaining a college degree, possibly an advanced college degree, and make a similar wage to what one could have without the debt and degree.  Maybe the idea of the dollar value in a college degree has been oversold a bit, and a college education has less extrinsic worth than we typically tell kids, especially high school students.
Considering all this, I still advocate heavily for the value in an education.  Why?  Because all of this ignores the intrinsic value of an education.  If you want an education for the increased pay check, then be careful and choose your degree accordingly, or go an alternate route that has a lower cost and is more job related- apprenticeships, community colleges, and certificate programs are great forms of vocational education.  If you choose to go the college route, then recognize that it may or may not pay off monetarily, and remember the intrinsic value of an education.  Better yet, all of us should remember the intrinsic value of education in general.  Education is different from vocational training.  A liberal arts education is well rounded, and much of what is learned is how to think, how to critically analyze, and exposure to ideas and people that a student hasn't had before.  For society, the value of an education is in having a populous that can critique, analyse, and argue effectively.  That's something from which everyone benefits.
Can we please stop selling a college education as a job ticket, and instead support higher education and make it accessible to everyone?  Can we change the discussion of the value of an education to a more accurate description of the real value of an education?

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