06/07/2012 04:40 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Towards a Better Question About the Value of Education

It's probably worth noting my bias: since its founding by Roger Babson (who also founded Babson College) and his wife Grace Knight Babson in 1927, Webber International University has always been laser focused on its graduates getting jobs. When Board members routinely call to ask about the latest job placement statistics, the importance permeates throughout the organization. While as a traditional liberal arts college it brings to the table broader educational offerings, since its founding in 1896 St. Andrews University has been focused on turning out graduates who, irrespective of their degrees, are trained in critical thinking and lifelong learning. Not only have the successes of our graduates validated our methods, but I like and believe in what we do. Such are my biases exposed and in the open.

The widespread recent attacks on the value of a college education -- notwithstanding a mountain of evidence showing neither employment nor earnings are equally distributed amongst those of all educational levels (one example) -- leave out an important consideration. Perhaps the debate shifts, and, indeed becomes more meaningful, if we collectively stipulate that a college degree is a tool, and, like any other tool, cannot be valued in a vacuum but instead must be considered in light of what the tool enables one to do, what other tools are at one's disposal, and what the job at hand entails.

Take, for the sake of a simplifying analogy, the hammer. Most of us, I think, are better off in many situations with a hammer than without one. But a hammer's value is dependent upon a variety of factors, the complex calculus of which is challenging to reduce to a simple one size fits all formula. I have a brother who is a cabinet-maker by trade. His hammer allows him to, quite literally, bang out a handsome living. While he could not have provided for himself or family without it during his carpenter days, my retired father's hammer now doesn't have a lot of value, though the occasional threat to remodel my sister's house doubtlessly brings him as much joy as does his periodically using it to rearrange the photos on his wall. And for me, well, if my can opener breaks, there's always my hammer. And don't get me started on the subtle differences between sledge hammers, claw hammers, and ball-peen hammers or whether the top of the line hammer drives a straighter nail. Clearly, the average reader is willing to concede by now, the value of a hammer varies from person to person, life stage to life stage, the intended use of the hammer, the other tools in one's toolbox, and likely other factors as well.

One wonders, therefore, if it becomes challenging to universally and definitively value a hammer, how we would go about valuing something as complex and varied as a college education. We have all heard the remarkable (perhaps, in part, because of its rarity) story of one having become a billionaire irrespective of not having completed college (or, more rarely still, high school). But, in the aggregate, the data are inescapable -- in terms of likelihood of being employed and earning potential, it's better to have a college degree than to not have one. Does a college education help every single person earn a better living? It's as reasonable a question as "does owning a hammer help every single person earn a better living?" with the same answer: of course not. Having a tool -- even the right tool for the job -- is but part of the equation. Another huge part of the equation is what one choses to do with it.

We would not say categorically hammers are bad investments because some people chose not to use theirs. Neither would we brand them categorically overpriced because some folks purchase a different model than their profession requires. So here's a humble proposition... what if we turn our energy away from discussing a question -- is a college degree worth it? -- already amply and indisputably answered in the aggregate by the empirical data, and focus instead on a question where our collective input might have some value: what should we assume any college graduate knows and knows how to do? There will be varied opinions, of course -- I have a friend who thinks knowing how to insert an IV is critical and another who believes that every comprehensive exam should have a pass fail question demonstrating the candidate's ability to discern between and properly use "its" and "it's." There are those who believe that a passing acquaintance with the masterworks which have shaped humanity is essential to being human and those who think that balancing a checkbook is a non-negotiable. Divergent views, of course, which may well not congeal into a consensus about what a college graduate needs to know. But, perhaps it is time to again define what having a college degree means. While offerings, like people, are too diverse to lend themselves to the "bright lines" or common curricula some have proposed or a stripping of the unique aspects that make so many programs special (if standardization was so swell, we would not have both sledge hammers and finish hammers), perhaps we can reach some agreement about what saying "I have a college degree" ought to convey to society.