The Value of Higher Education (for Students)

Higher education is valuable for many things beyond the degree itself. This article lists contributors towards the immediate, short-term, and long term value for the students who attend, where value is defined as

The student attending school either may go to school for this reason, or they derive enjoyment/benefit from school for this reason.

This article is only about the value, not the costs. Here I consider mainly the “traditional college experience.” I’m writing this because I feel people often think higher education is valuable only because of the degree granted or the courses taken. However, in my “Perspectives for Analyzing MOOCs” post, I talk about analyzing the value of MOOCs vs. other teaching systems and I started to list a bunch of non-educational reasons why higher education has value. (For the curious: a MOOC is a “massively open on-line course,” and is a recent trend in technology-enabled education.) That got me thinking: we need a good understanding of the value of higher education in order to have discussions about value vs. cost and what creates value.

To those ends, here I list areas where higher education can provide immediate, short-term, or long-term value. (Certainly, the value proposition for different types of schools is different: for example, in whether the school tends to target trade skills vs. generalized critical-thinking skills.) You may not agree with the list, and I’m sure I missed a bunch. Some of what I’ve listed here is controversial. Please comment and I’ll update this post!

Immediate value

Social benefits

  • People you meet/the network you build (including meeting people from other economic classes)
  • Maintaining reputation with peers who are also going to college
  • Socially acceptable not to have a job
  • Social events
    • Athletic events
    • Clubs
    • Official campus social events
    • Unofficial social events

Physical location

  • Housing/a place to live
  • Life skills (e.g. how to cook, clean, or do laundry)
  • On-campus bars, arcades, other venues
  • Meal plans
  • Athletic facilities (think gym membership)

Community support

  • Reduced risk of jail time (expulsion rather than jail time is often the ultimate sanction, e.g. for drug possession)
  • Generally, people watching out for you (e.g. residence advisors, counselors, faculty)
  • Discounts for on-campus events (e.g. music concerts)
  • Student discounts elsewhere (e.g. on museums, travel)
  • Student health & student insurance options
  • Other services provided e.g. technology support, outdoors office, chaplain’s office

Other immediate value

  • Spending money provided (e.g. through living expenses in loans)
  • What you learned in class that day (e.g. the Romans spread chickens from India throughout their empire, Hamming codes are a type of mathematical error-correcting code)

Short-term value

(Value that requires a time investment but is realized prior to graduation)
Abilities developed

  • Job skill-specific abilities (e.g. “Introduction to Java programming”)–these can immediately land you a job doing that thing
  • Improved rational debate ability (e.g. better logical argumentation)
  • Critical thinking skills and the ability to evaluate sources of information
  • Communications skills (e.g. ability to write, speak other languages, increased vocabulary)
  • “Life enjoyment” abilities (e.g. poetry writing, knowing the names of trees)
  • Learning how to exist in a bureaucracy (not to be snide, but you have to fill out a lot of forms in college e.g. to register for classes)
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Leadership

Job-related benefits

  • Career assistance
    • Career counselors
    • Internship opportunities
    • Other campus jobs
  • Membership in honor societies/groups that will look good on your résumé
  • Receiving status associated with the school (“I went to MIT”, even if you don’t graduate)

Other short-term value

  • Generally increased knowledge of stuff (e.g. the difference between cash and accrual accounting)
  • Learning about yourself
  • Broadened perspective/being introduced to “unknown unknowns” (e.g. study abroad, learning about things you knew nothing about)
  • Summers off (e.g. for short-term jobs, traveling)

Long-term value

(Value realized upon/after graduation)
Direct benefits for employment

  • Meet the minimum or preferred qualifications for jobs (many jobs require a bachelor’s degree)
  • Increased average salary (partly because you can qualify for better jobs)
  • Possibly (?) reduced chance of layoffs/jobs that are harder to outsource
  • Improved job conditions (e.g. less likely to perform manual labor, more likely to have a job in air conditioning)

Other long-term benefits

  • Alumni network (esp. for people you did not meet while at school, but went to the same alma mater)
  • Family/relations proud of you for completing school
  • Setting an example for others
  • Qualify for additional schooling
  • Personal reputation imputed from the school you attended (e.g. if you went to Harvard that connotes you are smart)

The value of “the traditional college experience”

The “traditional college experience” (where you live in a residence hall while attending college full time while aged ~17-23) is the only setting where you receive much of the above value. If people attend school on-line, or attend a non-residential school, or attend part-time, they don’t receive many of the networking and other benefits listed.

I would argue that there is a HUGE gap between the value of a “traditional college experience” and the value of instruction and the degree-granting process.

Resources used

[Update 2013/05/06: added a definition for “MOOC” and added to the “abilities developed” list under the short-term value section.]