Why Go to College? Is It Worth It?

IMG_1611_PS1The Quadrangle and Memorial Church: Stanford University

Yesterday’s editorial page in our local newspaper featured an article by Richard Cohen who writes for the Washington Post newspaper. It is titled “Can’t measure worth of college in dollars.” In it, he reflects upon the benefits of his college education. After applying “his own set of metrics” to evaluating the experience, he candidly confesses that the Washington Post would likely not have hired him without a college degree but that he probably could have earned as much in the insurance business – without the education.

Most importantly, he concludes in hindsight that attending college has made him “a happier person,” and that fact is worth everything. His reflection on the lifetime benefits which college has afforded him highlights the acquaintance of “some wonderful people,” including fellow students whose greater sophistication and worldly outlooks benefitted him greatly.

Yes! When reflecting upon our personal experiences, many of us can attest to the pervasive, long-term benefits of our college years: The crystal-clear window on human nature that four years on campus with fellow students can provide, the independence that campus living fosters, and that other window-on-the-world provided by a liberal education which stresses more than just occupational preparedness.

But why not have the best of both worlds? Why not choose a college major which fires the soul – one which promises personal growth and satisfaction while simultaneously developing marketable skills? I had the great, good fortune to do precisely that. Entering college in the fall of 1958, I set sail for a career in science or engineering (ultimately engineering) because I was interested in those fields and felt I had some aptitude. The inherent cold war threat of Russia’s success with Sputnik in 1957 fueled a great need for engineers and scientists, here in the United States. The timing of the employment boom in engineering was fortuitous as was the cost of college in 1958. Sometimes, pure luck trumps even prudent planning.

 Going Into Debt…Big-Time!

Mr. Cohen points out that the average graduate, today, is saddled with $33,000 of student debt as he or she faces an uncertain job market where entry-level positions pay very little in many fields – when they exist at all! Many of these grads will never be able to pay their debt, nor to shake that debt through bankruptcy.

When I reported to the San Jose State College campus as a freshman way back in 1958, the tuition was $29.50 per semester! I boarded with three other freshman students in the home of dear old Mrs. Lucas, a widowed, seventy-one year old lady whose longtime home was several blocks from campus. Her daughter boarded several other students just down the street, and we all ate dinner together. Mrs. Lucas charged a little more than other boarding houses in the area because it was smaller and a tad nicer – a whopping $85 per month for room and board!

At San Jose State, I reveled in the wonderful instruction and the knowledge I eagerly absorbed in my calculus, engineering physics, and chemistry classes. As the only technical major in a large, two-year, class-everyday, integrated humanities program (by invitation only), I often chafed at the some of the subjects which were difficult for me. Dissecting T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Wasteland,” and reading about the Peloponnesian War in ancient times did not come easily to me, but they did open my eyes to the vast scope of liberal-arts studies. I never did understand what Eliot was saying in that poem! I will take the time someday to have my English major daughter, Ginny, explain it to me, line-by-line. She gets it, completely. She got those genes from my mother, not from me!


When I transferred to Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto for my junior year, I lived in a large student dormitory on campus which provided a still-broader vantage point on the picture-window of life and living – so many really smart people and so much going on, there! I paraphrase what Mr. Cohen says in his piece: I encountered “fellow students who were so much more sophisticated and worldly than I was.” Indeed, there was so much to learn and experience at Stanford – especially for someone like me, the first in both extended families ever to go to college. Today, I still reflect in wonder on the fall of 1958 and those first, uneasy evenings away from home spent at Mrs. Lucas’ boarding house in San Jose. The three other fellows – new freshmen like myself – were discussing their possible college “majors,” and I had no idea what that actually meant!

I graduated from Stanford after 4 years and one extra quarter with a degree in electrical engineering. I had a wonderful occupation and career waiting for me, and that, too, was a whole new learning curve and challenge, especially here in Silicon Valley, California where the professional competition and the pace are intense.

Money and career aside, I can identify completely with Mr. Cohen and his Washington Post article: The things that matter most in the end are the experiences garnered during four years on a college campus and the memories and lessons which derive from them. Those of us in my generation often comment among each other how fortunate we were to come-of-age during the golden age of higher education in the United States of America. The total tuition for four years at Stanford then was $4,000. When I left there, I had a student loan debt of $1000 which I was able to pay off quickly by living with my parents for a year while working at my first job in engineering. Today, a Stanford Bachelor’s degree costs $180,000 in tuition, alone. This is in line with most similar, private universities and not that much higher than many top-tier public schools.  Granted, substantial aid packages are very prevalent today, but with an average student loan debt of $33,000 and employment prospects fair to terrible depending on one’s field, the situation is dire for today’s youth who wish the full college experience. For many, the experience of which we speak is on its way to becoming a dinosaur – rarely seen anymore. The trend-line of today’s reality dictates a work/study approach to life and learning whereby a job and part-time schooling coexist. It suddenly strikes me that the situation is precisely what many of our parents faced during the more austere periods following the depression and during the war years as they struggled to get ahead. Are we coming full circle in America’s middle class?

My advice to high school students: First, identify your passion in life, and pursue it. Never neglect ultimate financial security and the importance of having some money to work with, but your engine will be fueled through all your years by the satisfaction derived from your life’s work and experiences, not by an excess of disposable money.

The attitude with which one approaches life and work can completely color the whole reality. What at first appears ugly and unappealing, like being in a low-paying sales position and dealing with the public can be transformed by viewing such a job as a challenge and an opportunity to brighten people’s life each day by exhibiting enthusiasm and competence in the process of doing your work. This is, in essence, taking pride in your professionalism, no matter what the job description – and that is a good thing. As for today’s high price of college: My advice to youngsters is to NEVER immerse yourself in a level of debt that you will be unable to pay back. No “campus experience” will prove worth the personal travail of unmanageable, lifelong debt. It is far better to work and go to school part-time to acquire a profession which will inspire you to excel and to forego the “complete campus experience,” as fulfilling as that may be. A new trend in the form of on-line college courses is just around the corner whereby college-level courses can be viewed and even taken for credit from the comfort and convenience of the home. Many of the top universities in the country are evaluating the prospects of such a game-changing opportunity for those who cannot afford today’s cost of a four-year “campus experience.”

The only thing which is permanent in this life is…change. That is especially true of education and the dissemination of information and knowledge. While acknowledging that fact, I nevertheless thank my parents, San Jose State College, Stanford University, and my lucky stars for every single day of what I had the great good fortune to experience. I know exactly what Richard Cohen was talking about in his column.

For more on colleges and choosing the right one, see Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student, Jan. 26, 2014 in my blog archives.