Many American families are asking whether sending their children to college is worth it if they end up in jobs that pay less than the cost of tuition.
Mike Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, says it makes complete sense for people to be concerned about the economic benefits of college.
"We respond to the threat that's most imminent, right?" Rose tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon.
But, he says, there are many other reasons to get a college education.
Rose, the author of Why School? and other books, cites the idea of intellectual growth — "not just learning things to make a living, but also learning things to enable you to do things with your life, to enable you to find interests and pursuits that may in some way or another expand the way we see things."
There are also social benefits, he says: learning to think together, learning to attack problems together, learning how to disagree.
"One of the great things about bringing so many people together in this common space," he says, "is that you're almost forced to have to deal with and encounter people who see the world in a very different way from your own, ways that you maybe never even thought of."
Rose points to the Jeffersonian ideal that having a functioning democracy requires having an educated citizenry. The concept may be difficult to appreciate when one is working as a barista, he says, but that might be exactly the time when a person should be thinking about it.
"You know, to be able to think about our economic situation in some kind of an analytical and sophisticated way is not something that comes easy," he says, "and I think it does come with study."
Rose says that if we preach only the economic payoff of education, we affect what and how we teach.
"It ends up affecting the way we define what it means to be educated," he says. "That's pretty important stuff to be thinking about in a free society."
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SCOTT SIMON, host:
The current economy with a high unemployment rate is among the reasons more Americans seem to be asking, is a college degree really worth it? Mike Rose is a professor of education at UCLA. He's spent a career thinking about the value of a college education. He joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. MIKE ROSE (UCLA Education Professor): Oh, thank you, Scott.
SIMON: So, recognizing the answer might be complicated, why should students and their families go into hock for hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a job that might pay less than what they paid for tuition?
Mr. ROSE: Well, you know, I think maybe the place to start is with the hundreds of thousands of dollars part. You know, it's unfortunate that we set our sights on the top 20, 30 universities in the United States when we think about going to college - and by top, I mean the ones that get the highest rankings in U.S. News and World Report, the ones that have the most cache.
But there are thousands upon thousands of other institutions of higher learning, public institutions of higher learning, where it costs a whole lot less and where you can get a decent education. And unfortunately I think people are kind of guided away from them because they're, quote-unquote, "low status." They're not going to lead anywhere. But it's just not true.
SIMON: There are undoubtedly benefits, other than vocational, to a college education. But I'm wondering if it's harder in a time like this to get people to focus on that.
Mr. ROSE: I mean, you know, we respond to the threat that's most imminent, right? I mean, that's the way we survive. It's part of human nature. It makes complete sense that when we listen to public policy spokespeople, when we listen to our legislators, that virtually the only reason we hear to get an education is an economic one.
You know, we need to prepare students for the 21st century economy and we need to educate our citizenry so that we can regain the kind of economic preeminence that we held for so long. All of that is understandable. What concerns me, Scott, is that it can also narrow our vision. If all we talk about, as we've been doing for decades now, is the economic payoff of education, that ends up affecting finally what we teach and how we teach it. It ends up affecting the way we define what it means to be educated.
SIMON: Well, and remind us of some of those benefits.
Mr. ROSE: You know, historically, there's been many other justifications for education in our country that in fact have trumped the economic one. I mean, for many, many years the civic and moral purpose of mass education was trumpeted. You know, the Jeffersonian ideal, right? That to have a functioning democracy you need an educated citizenry, so that kind of civic purpose of education has certainly been important.
The idea of intellectual growth that is not just learning things to make a living, but also learning things to enable you to do things with your life; enable you to find interests and pursuits that in some way or another maybe it, you know, expand the way you see things.
There's a social benefit to it for sure; learning to think together; learning to attack problems together; learning how to disagree; being exposed to other points of view. So there's these kinds of multiple reasons that historically have played in and out of our justifications for schooling.
SIMON: Is it harder though to get people to cherish the value of the Jeffersonian ideal, when they're working as a barista?
Mr. ROSE: Thats a really good point. But maybe that's exactly the time when they should be thinking about the Jeffersonian ideal; that is the kind of education that would enable you to think about the politics and economics that have you working in a Starbucks. You know, to be able to think about our economic situation in some kind of an analytical and sophisticated way is not something that comes easy. And I think it does come with study.
SIMON: What's the effect of students being able to look at people like Bill Gates, and Jeff Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs - and they're pretty prominent college dropouts - who will say college was not meeting my needs. And they can finish that sentence by saying and now I'm one of the most successful people in the world.
Mr. ROSE: I am absolutely not a person who says one-size-fits-all. In arguing about some kind of education beyond high school, I'm not just talking about the regular four-year liberal arts degree. I mean I think a lot of remarkable stuff happens in occupational programs, in two-year college programs. You know, the Bill Gateses, the Zuckerbergs; they're rare and I think we have to be careful about generalizing from rare examples.
SIMON: Is college still valuable for giving the students a space to experiment?
Mr. ROSE: Some of the students I work with in a poor, urban community college right now, boy, they don't have time to experiment, right? I mean they are desperately trying to build the skills to be able to get a better toehold on the economy. So let's first admit that the good fortune to be able to experiment isn't available to everybody, just in terms of, you know, your income background.
But that notion of college as being a place to try things on makes a lot of sense to me. I mean I see it so often. Young people come in, they have an idea for a major and then they take that astronomy class. Or they think that history class, or they think that literature class, or a dance class, and boom, a light goes on for them and they find a passion.
SIMON: Mike Rose, a professor of education at UCLA, author of several books about education including "The Mind at Work," thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. ROSE: Thank you, Scott.
SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.