The Value of a Higher Education

I’ve been kicking back and forth whether or not to write this article, but this concept has been weighing on my conscience for far too long.  Being a student in Computer Science, I am beginning to notice the students around me more, and their level of competency when it comes to the narrow topics that are being discussed in class.  For the most part, everyone tries their best and gets things done, and as adults tend to actually attempt to understand all of the material.

But there are a select few students that either are just not getting it, or are relying on the “No Child Left Behind” mentality to simply skate through the college experience and earn their degrees.  One problem with this set of students is that they are going to be completely shocked and overwhelmed when they reach a real work environment, and not all requirements and steps are set in stone and handed to them on a silver plate.

This is where my problem with the state of higher education stems.


Though I will be discussing the pitfalls of the education system as it exists right now, I am in no way bashing the instructors who excel at what they do, regardless of what material and curricula are handed to them.  Generally speaking, if an instructor has made it to the level of college professor, they are doing something right, and have a true talent for teaching and interacting with their students.

The problem students themselves are not completely to blame, either.  Each person has his/her own strengths and weaknesses, and I would not expect everyone to excel in a specialized area of study in a college environment.  Most students try their best, and get the work done and deserve the grades and degrees that they receive in recognition of their hard work.

The System

Yeah, Its Kind Of Like That

Yeah, It's Kind Of Like That

As I’ve mentioned here before, I have a very bad taste in my mouth from the “No Child Left Behind” legislature, as well as the base concept of the whole movement.  While I do think that we should be working very hard on the “middle of the road” children (those who are not handicapped or “gifted and talented”), I think that the system simply pushes students through a set of requirements, and doesn’t actually teach our children what is needed to survive in the real world.

In the real world, you are not given specific instructions, step-by-step hand holding, and a strict list of everything you need to accomplish.  NCLB allows students who are incapable of working above the requirements to meet the very base standards, regardless of how useful those standarsds will be in the future.  The fallout of such legislature is that teachers are bound to teach exactly what is on the required exams, leaving little room for natural and exciting topics that are useful in everyday life, which relate to those requirements.

The traditional teacher has intrinsic motivation to teach students to reach their full potential.  But when teachers are given strict guidelines to follow, there is not much room for personal interpretation of the requirements and areas on which to expand.

Though the legislature only technically has a reach of public school systems, the effects can be felt in the higher education sector.  At one point in time, a potential college student was considered for their academic prowess, as well as any kind of extracurricular activities they had participated in.  But, when you limit the “top level” students, you create a new class of mediocre students, who are technically qualified to attend higher education, whether or not they have truly proven themselves in the arena of academia or real world skills.

The Devaluation of Higher Education

This overall mentality begins to create vacuums of talent, and tends to push “top level” students to accept mediocrity.  When there is a horde of mediocre students applying for a higher education institution, the tendency would be to cater to the larger audience.

After all, higher education is a business in the purist sense.  Classes are exorbitantly costly, and books are ridiculously overpriced for their content.  Even with that barrier to entry, drawing on credit is the norm for college-bound individuals, creating yet another issue with the overall economy and the stability of our financial institutions, which bank on the ability of the receiver to earn enough to repay their obligation.

I’ve personally seen the hand holding mentality transferred to higher education, and I don’t feel that it is the fault of the instructors.  A college instructor has a tendency to want to help students learn, and be able to go out into the real world and make something of themselves, improving our world in some way.

But, when a student is helped every step of the process, they tend to lack those skills best developed through trial and error.  Acquiring a degree then becomes the easy part of getting an education.

So, when a student is handed through to a college degree, they then go out into the real world to find a job in that particular focus.  If the student was simply interested in getting that piece of paper, then they are going to drown in the realities of the working world.  And, having seen the quality of the work coming from a graduate of a particular institution of higher education, employers will start to look at other graduates from the same institution in a different light.

Hypothetical Example
Let’s say Student A was hired at Company Z, who does not have a stringent interview process where the potential employee is vetted against their previous experience.  Student A then goes on to work for a 3-month contract period, where it is discovered quickly that they do not have the skill that it takes to do their job in an efficient and confident manner.  Company Z then proceeds to end the contract period, and look for a new employee to fill the position.

Student B, who graduated from the same institution as Student A, then applies for the same position.  Automatically, Company Z has a tendency to place Student B’s resume on the bottom of the pile (just above the potentials with no degree or experience).  With the experience of having Student A flounder in this position, Company Z is then wary of hiring anyone from that educational institution.

This decreases the value of a college degree from that institution.  Student B may be the right fit for the job, but because Student A coasted through college and did not gain enough experience to work properly in the real world, Student B is now being discriminated against because of Student A’s inability to function well in that position.

The Base Issue

Inflation in terms of the value of a college education is ever increasing.  Where 20 years ago a high school diploma was enough to get certain jobs, today a college degree is expected even before the process of vetting begins.

But, because a college degree does not necessarily guarantee that a student learned everything there is to know about their particular field of study, it becomes just a piece of paper that is another road bump in the quest for a career.

It is true that college is great for learning new skills in certain areas that are laid out in the curricula, but the fact is that each student must take it upon themselves to determine whether the careers obtainable through that degree are right for them individually.  It’s hard to look at a fellow student who is struggling with each assignment, constantly asking questions about each step of a point and click procedure and tell them that everyone else knows that this area of study is not right for them.

In order to get the point across, one would have to shepherd that student to a point where he or she could make the introspective analysis that they are not doing what they should be, or that they need to change their future focus in order to do well in the real world.  But this is hard.  This is extremely hard.

A good early education teaches a child to learn not only about the world around him, but also about how he as an individual works.  Education in this context is not only what is achieved through public schooling, but also through religion and parental involvement, as well as innumerable other social factors.  In my (uneducated) analysis, one must have strong backing in more than one of these categories in order to do well as a functioning member of society later in life.

Today, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the modern parent is detached from their child’s education more than ever before in history.  The modern parent tends to see school as a way to teach their children all of the facts of life, as well as cramming all of the important knowledge of the world into their fragile brains.  When the parent begins to withdraw from the child, it becomes obvious to that parent that the education system doesn’t teach everything there is to know.

The difference between a good parent and one who raises a child who is pushed along through a public education is apathy.  When a parent gets involved in their child’s life, they are not supplanting the information that comes from their child’s education, but rather supplementing it.  This is an extremely important concept that has dire consequences later in life if it is ignored.

Through those extra layers of education, a child can begin to take personal inventory and learn not only about himself, but also how the world around him works.  A realistic personal understanding is one of the most important educational tools that a student can have.

When a student has a strong base understanding of himself, he will quickly realize that he is either not understanding what he is getting himself into, or know that it isn’t the thing he wants to be doing for the rest of his live.  It is nigh impossible to cram this concept into an adult who is working their way through a higher education degree.

Not being able to understand one’s own limitations, and achieving a degree is dangerous and entirely irresponsible of the student and everyone involved in his previous education.  The student is not only unaware of the harm he is doing to his future self, but he is also incapable of understanding the impact that his coasting will have on his fellow students.

What Can We Do About This?

The Employer
The easiest thing for an employer to do is to create some sort of strict hiring process that forces the potential employee to show what they are worth, regardless if they have that piece of paper saying they’ve passed through the system.

The Student
For the student, it is imperative to look introspectively and decide whether or not you are harming your future self, or your fellow students.  Empathy is the main idea here, and you need to be sure that you are in touch with your own feelings as well as those of the people around you.  Work hard, but not only on the class material.  Pick up an open source project if you are studying to be a software developer.  Write a blog, a novel, or something else public if you are planning to go into a career where writing is essential.

Don’t just coast along and take everything that your institution gives you and expect life to cater to you the way that you have gotten used to since kindergarten.  Learn new skills, take the time to learn the trade you are going into.  Find someone who is in the position you want to be in and strike up a conversation.  Become an apprentice, find a mentor, keep moving forward.

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The Parent
For the love of all that is human, be a part of your child’s life.  Don’t just ship him off to school expecting all is well.  Find out what he did that day, help him with his homework.  Help him study for that big test.  Find other students who are in your child’s class, and set up study and play sessions.  Peer interaction is the basis of a good education, and it is your responsibility as a parent to encourage that mentality.

Talk to the parents of your child’s friends and classmates.  Encourage them to become involved in their own child’s education.  When your child’s friends and classmates become better students, your child is pushed to a higher need to excel, thereby making your child a better student in the process.  Become involved, but don’t overstep your boundaries.  Your child does not need to burn out early in his education, but he needs to know that it is important for his future to learn things early.  Children don’t always have a long view of their lives ahead of them, but encourage them to dream and visualize themselves leading a happy life.

Teach your child the importance of becoming attuned to his personal feelings.  He needs the guidance to understand when to cut his losses and when to push forward through the barriers.  Do this so that his future peers don’t have to.

Finally, don’t lie to your child.  Talk to your child as if he were an adult, answering his questions in an honest and informed manner.  And don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer to one of his questions.  It’s important for a child to know that not everyone is perfect and that even though he may not know the answers to every question, that there is a way for him to discover that answer through other people or through simple research.

Will There Ever Be A Working System?

No.  It is impossible to shape the minds of a vast number of students with a small set of rules.  It is contrary to human nature for everyone to fall in line and learn things in the same manner, carrying away the same experience from their education.

The important thing to remember is that there are an extremely large number of layers that play into a functioning member of society, and that many of these layers are created early in life.  Without proper attention to these layers, the value of an individual to society is drastically reduced.

Perhaps the children are our future, but remember, you were once a child too.  If you see yourself as a finely molded citizen, think back to what situations and lessons brought you to this present condition.  And ask yourself if that is what our children today are receiving from their overall education.  If not, do something about it.

  • Travis O’Donnell

    I really enjoyed this article, as I see it happening to classmates everyday.

    It makes me wonder if people choose their profession/college studies because they truly love what it’s about or because you read constantly that companies are hiring people for “such and such” jobs. Either way you will want to keep expanding your knowledge. As you pointed out, college will only teach you the minimum to cover the stuff on the exams.

    Always be ready to learn more (especially in the field of computers). Don’t think that you know all to get by because in a few years, your ‘skill’ may not be outdated or not used anymore.

    Technology… gotta love it…


    Again, thanks for the good read :)

  • Nobody In Particular

    Those are exactly my feelings. I always have trouble getting this point across to people. Education should involve teaching real life skills. Luckily, my parents have aways understood education. My friends have had no such luck :(

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