10/22/2014 01:22 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

In Defense of College

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The right-wing media are convinced that President Obama is purposely trying to bring Ebola to the United States, vaccination rates in wealthy LA schools are as low as those in the Sudan, and a full 65 percent of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice. Given those circumstances, it is particularly astounding that college education is under attack. The right has branded four-year universities as "liberal indoctrination camps" and the left is bemoaning the high price of college education. And some software billionaires are creating code academies that encourage our brightest young minds to learn coding over a broad-based university education.

The average yearly cost of a four-year education at a public university is $16,700. The average annual income differential of those with a college degree vs. those with a high school education is $17,500... and the gap is widening. That means that a four-year education pays for itself in... just four years of working. Those with college degrees don't just make more, they are also more employed.

The unemployment rate for high school graduates is nearly double the rate of unemployment for college graduates. And those are just averages, across all fields of study. In certain STEM fields, and for those with a graduate degree, the income differential is more than double those with just a high school diploma. Of the Forbes list of 10 highest paying jobs, all 10 require a STEM education, and nine out of 10 require a graduate degree or better.

Are there billionaires who didn't finish college and started software or internet companies? Of course. One is my own hero, Bill Gates. Every year in the US, there will be a handful of teenagers gifted enough to become billionaires, or star athletes, or piano virtuosos, or chess prodigies... without a higher education. Those are the exceptions that prove the rule. Which is to say nothing of the fact that most of those software billionaires have legions of PhDs working in their companies.

But the importance of college isn't just economics; it's much bigger than that. Separating fact from fiction and being able to think and reason critically have never been more important. It isn't just our global economic competitiveness that is under attack, it is also our leadership in secular thought. Our ability to thrive economically, solve complex 21st-century challenges, and to live at peace in an increasingly global community all depend on an informed, engaged and erudite public. While Rick Santorum is calling President Obama a "snob" for suggesting that all kids should aspire to a college education, what is going increasingly unnoticed is how easily the same right-wingers are brainwashing large swaths of Americans.

"Intelligent design" isn't a new scientific theory. It's creationism, relabeled. And that is fine. Anyone can believe whatever religious version of human existence he or she wants. But, when taxpayer dollars are being diverted to teach creationism and when less than 50 percent of Americans understand the science that humans evolved from previous species, it's clear that we have an alarming ignorance problem that is relatively unique to this country. In fact, the US is the only non-Islamic developed country in the world where the evolution battle is still being waged.

That is the context in which a college education is so much more imperative than a code academy. Yes, software engineers are in great demand. I struggle to find them for my own start-ups. Solid coders can command a six-figure salary without a college education. But coding is a skill. An important one, but a skill nevertheless. A half-century ago, one could enjoy a middle-class life by learning welding or plumbing or some other skill.

Our leadership in the world doesn't just come from having skilled workers in decent jobs. It comes from our ideators and innovators, our leaders and thinkers, our scholars and scientists. Our software engineers don't just write code for computers and the internet. They write code for computers invented here, with transistors invented here, connected by an internet invented here. That kind of innovation isn't unique to our industry and scientific pursuits. It has been the hallmark of our evolving equality and our willingness to break down racial and class divides as well. But as we have seen in the last few years, those divides are easy to play upon and hard to close.

From Ferguson to fracking, our views are increasingly tainted by race, education and class. While even the most educated amongst us are victims of our own cognitive dissonance, colleges and universities are the best way we know how to bridge our divides, narrow our differences and increase our unity. Universities teach us how to think for ourselves. Student life teaches us how to live with others. If our own children learn these two things, my wife and I will consider us great successes. If enough parents want the same for their children, our country will ensure its continued success as well.