10/24/2013 12:01 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What's a Liberal Arts Education Really Worth?


Are You Ready to Spend $100,000 Whilst Reading Beowulf?

I would suggest that most (yes, I said most) of the kids planning on spending mucho bucks going off to college might stop and rethink the whole thing. With what schools are charging these days, unless your parents have rock star fortunes, it may be nothing more than an obscene waste of money. Did you know that a cop can wind up earning more than a professor, and this is not a reality that's restricted to those in law enforcement? Even plumbers can make more than school teachers... and the work is far less hazardous.

The problem here is that 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. A liberal arts degree is certainly a nice luxury if you can afford it and if you have 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, higher education was reserved for just a tiny, elite portion of the population while all others learned a trade, typically through the apprentice system.

Of course there are those who work their way, or have their parents pay their way, through a college and then go directly into a lucrative career but those are mainly colleges that train for a profession such as law, medicine, business or engineering. And here I might mention that even such high-end jobs can get awfully boring. One dentist told me everyone thinks he's had 10 years of experience but, truth be told, it's a lot more like one year 10 times. And after a decade of such specialized training, what if you then decide that you don't like law, medicine, business or engineering? What seems new and exciting in your 20s can really start to suck when you get to be 40. And it's not as though you can then just start over in another field. The reduction in pay and prestige is way more than most professionals can tolerate no matter how much they come to hate their chosen specialty.

And here's yet another point to consider: Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Richard Branson and Bill Gates (who occasionally loans money to God) are all dropouts. Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame says: "Most college degrees don't necessarily qualify the graduate for anything."

So 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, one might want to consider earning a wage while learning a trade and then putting the same cash and credit into starting a business. Or maybe 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 (accounting and computers, for example) and there might actually be a job available upon graduation.

The bottom line regarding a well-rounded, liberal arts 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.

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