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Is College the Best Choice for Everyone?

The National Public Radio debate show Intelligence Squared U.S. recently aired a deliberation on whether or not “Too Many Kids Are Going To College”.  Held in Chicago on October 12 in front of a live audience, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and political scientist and author Charles Murray argued that yes, too many students in the United States are persuaded to go to college when that might not be the best option for all of them in the long run.  Vivek Wadhwa, the director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University as well as columnist for the Washington Post, and Henry Bienen, president emeritus of Northwestern University, faced off against Thiel and Murray in defense of the value of a college education.  

Bienen spoke to the idea that the value received from going to college goes beyond just the ability to get a job.  He said that college is also a “consumption good” in that the experiences and knowledge received have intrinsic value for the student, whether the student is directly helped to get a job from that knowledge or not.  He stated:

“It's a consumption good in that there's something good in and of itself of learning about beautiful things and learning more analytical ways of thinking.  It was Steve Jobs himself, the late Steve Jobs, who said when he came back after dropping out of Reed and sat in on courses, he took a calligraphy course.  And that calligraphy course gave him a whole new world of thinking about design.  Who knows what, in the college experience, will trigger for people thinking about the world in a different way.”

Murray said that one of the problems we currently face is the perception that there are “good jobs”, such as attorney, doctor or scientist – the types of jobs which require secondary education – and there are “menial jobs” which don’t.  He stated:

“Now, tell me where it is written that we ought to think about what is more intrinsically rewarding about being a lawyer than being a cabinetmaker?  Why does that have – should that have any privilege over being a cabinetmaker?  There are a whole lot of jobs in this world which are wonderfully fulfilling that don't require a college degree, and we talk about them as being vocational training.  That is a kind of invidious caste system in education that I want to destroy by getting rid of college degrees. ...You want to hire a lawyer or a doctor you can do that in a nanosecond.  You want to find good skilled labor?  That's hard.  Finding a good plumber, a good electrician to come and fix things, that's hard.  We have a demand for a wide variety of skills that we aren't meeting because guess what: that's demeaning.”

The audience was polled for their opinion before the debate and then again after.  Prior to listening to the panel, 39 percent of the audience agreed that “too many kids go to college”, 40 percent disagreed, and 21 percent were not sure.  After the debate, the number who agreed with the statement had grown to 47 percent, the number who did not agree had grown to 46 percent, and 7 percent were still undecided.

The debate was declared a win for those who agreed with the statement, but the results are extremely close.  Listen to the 1 hour and 37 minute broadcast, or read a transcript of the debate provided by the program (see attachment below), and tell us what you think.  Do too many kids go to college?


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