The persistent debate over whether college is worth the investment tends to center on the size of a paycheck. The fact that a college degree remains the single greatest determining factor in social mobility – the ability to improve one’s socio-economic position – should be the end of the argument.
But the ultimate answer is more complex: The benefits of higher education are incalculably larger than the economic win for the individual. Educational attainment has changed how the world works, lives, mobilizes, communicates and survives. College education – additional learning – created a more adaptive population that produced a substantially different world in 20th century America.
Educational attainment accelerated in the 20th century and social mobility along with it. College education drove economic success and social changes in the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as technological marvels that continue to emerge at a breathtaking pace.
Our nation’s research universities are now producing the workforce for the 21st century economy, in addition to ideas and technologies that create entire new industries. Graduates of these universities enter the economy with new knowledge to drive scientific discovery, technological invention and understanding in all fields that guide us forward. Their cutting-edge ideas, products and processes move creativity and discovery into the marketplace, boosting not only their personal success but also national economic competitiveness.
Taking an even broader look at the issue, the post-industrial economy grew from a large cadre of college-educated thinkers and dreamers. The $18 trillion economy in the United States is not the result of incremental improvements on the industrial and agrarian worlds of the past. We have seen growth like no group since humans left the caves. This is nearly totally the result of highly creative technology developments that have begun to alter who we are as a species.
Those advances are the products of college-educated men and women. And the large numbers of college graduates that have utilized biotech, nanotech or communications tech for further advancement have produced unprecedented economic and social change.
The structure and outcome of American society now is being driven by college attainment. Educational attainment, now and in the future, drives class structure, medical outcomes, social welfare outcomes, children's success and democratic participation. An individual’s education level is also a reliable predictor of life span.
The standard radio talk show rebuttal is that when college grads hold jobs formerly filled by high school grads, college really isn't needed. A single step forward demonstrates the folly of that view. When one of those jobs ends or another position becomes available, it is that person with a post-secondary certificate – and most significantly a college degree – who is most adaptable, most able to move up.
But again, we must keep the big picture in mind: Consider the everyday wonders produced by people who absorbed the knowledge that universities exist to create and impart. We take for granted today that an executive with an iPad can dictate memos while connected to Wi-Fi on an airplane in flight, while the pilot relies on a sophisticated guidance system to track the weather and the jet’s progress toward their final destination. We take for granted that a surgeon can reach into your chest to fix your heart.
That executive, that pilot, that surgeon, the tools they rely on and the staff they work with are all products of higher education. And the people who built those tools rely on other college graduates to manage their retirement funds, serve as pediatricians to their kids, clean the water they drink and inspect the food they eat.
Arguments that do not grasp the social system-level impact of college might as well be positing that reading isn't a necessary tool for the 21st century human being because it doesn’t produce sufficient market return. Learning, the argument would go, will just make you want to keep learning.
Yes, it will. And the quality of your life and the world you inhabit will be better for it.