What’s So Good About A College Education?

Andrew P. Mills1

Why is it good to go to college? What is so valuable about a college education? College is expensive, and you wouldn’t spend all that money on something that wasn’t valuable. Moreover, college requires a great deal of work, and it requires that you spend time reading and writing and studying and going to class and taking tests—time that you could spend doing other things—and you wouldn’t spend your time on all those college-related tasks unless you thought you were getting something valuable for all your effort. You are in college, and so you think that getting a college education is a good thing—that it is valuable in some way or other—but what sort of value does it have? It’s worthwhile to spend some time thinking about the answer to this question, for it will affect the way you spend your time at college, and it will affect the sort of education that you get there. If you don’t know why college is valuable, you’re very likely wasting your time and money and effort during your college years.

Most people give what I will call the simple “Can Opener Answer” to this question. I think there are two serious problems with that answer, and that is what I want to convince you of. Once we see what is wrong with the simple Can Opener Answer, we can talk about some of the differences between high school and college, and the right way to approach your college education.

The Can Opener Answer

Why is it good to have a can opener? People pay money for can openers, and people spend time with can openers, so they must think that can openers are valuable in some way or other, but how are they valuable? The answer here is easy: can openers are valuable because they allow you to open cans. There’s tasty stuff inside of cans, and you can’t get at the tasty stuff unless the can is open, and you can’t open the can unless you’ve got a can opener. If you could open cans by snapping your fingers, then you wouldn’t need a can opener. Can openers are tools: they are valuable, but only as tools or instruments are valuable. That is, they are valuable because of what you can get with them. Once we acquire the ability to open cans by snapping our fingers, or once they stop hiding the tasty stuff inside of cans, then can openers will be useless. They will cease to have the sort of value they now have.2

So what’s the Can Opener Answer to the question about the value of college? It’s this: a college education is valuable because of what you can do with it. In particular, it’s valuable because you can trade it for a job. Crudely put, you can take your diploma, show it to an employer, and then you’ll get a job. Of course the job interview process is not that easy, but in rough outline that’s how many people (maybe even you!) think about the value of a college education. I hope you can see the analogy with the can opener case. The job is the analogue of the tasty stuff in the can. If you could get a job without a college education, then, it would seem, it’s silly and wasteful and foolish to spend all that time and money and effort at college. Just as it would be silly to spend money on a can opener if you could open the can by snapping your fingers.

People who ask the question, “So, what are you going to do with an English major?”, or “How much money do Sociology majors make?” are thinking in can opener terms. They think that the only thing valuable about a college education is what sort of job (and how high-paying a job) you can get with that college education. And they also think that people who major in Classics or Philosophy or Women’s Studies won’t get very good jobs. So, they think, since you’re spending all that time and money and effort on college, you should get yourself the sort of education that is useful for getting a good job. So, they might say, you should major in Nursing or Education or Business or Journalism or Computer Science because those are the sort of majors that you can trade for good jobs.

Now I think there is something right about the Can Opener Answer, but there are two serious problems with it. Let me now turn to those.

The First Problem with the Can Opener Answer

What the Can Opener Answer has right is that a college education is useful for getting a job. After all, college graduates, in general, have better, higher paying, more interesting, potentially more fulfilling jobs than those without college degrees. But that is not the only thing a college education is useful for. A college education—in particular, a broad-based, multi-disciplinary, liberal arts education—is useful for so much more. The problem with the simple Can Opener Answer is that it misses this “so much more” when it focuses merely on the job-getting features of a college degree. Here are just some of the other things that college educated people are able to do.

The point I’m making can be put this way. A college education isn’t valuable like a can opener is valuable. It’s valuable like a Swiss army knife is valuable. Or like a computer is valuable. People who focus simply on the job-getting feature of a college education are like people who think that the belt-punch is the only useful feature of a Swiss army knife.

I would argue that the benefits of a college education that I just listed are actually more valuable than the fact that you can get a good job with a college diploma. First, it is becoming increasingly unlikely you will spend the 40 years following college in one career, let alone in one job. To devote your college years to preparing for life as a lab assistant will turn out to be a waste when you leave the biomedical industry for a job in book publishing. But the features I listed above will be of use no matter what job you have. Secondly, and I think more importantly, the job you have is but one element in what I would hope is a complex and multi-layered life. Living your life involves so much more than working at a job. It involves being a citizen, a spouse, a friend, a parent, a decision-maker, and someone who has leisure time to fill, and a college education contributes toward improving these aspects of your life.

The Second Problem with the Can Opener Answer

That’s the first problem with the simple Can Opener Answer: it mistakes something that has many uses for something that performs merely one task. But even when we do focus on the way in which a college education translates into a job, I think many people fail fully to grasp precisely why employers value employees who are college educated. And this failure is the second problem with the simple Can Opener Answer.

The reason that college degrees translate into high-end salaries and good jobs has, I would argue, more to do with the skills one acquires in college than with the discipline-specific knowledge of the individual courses. No one is going to give you a better job because of your knowledge of Shakespeare or Plato or the Napoleonic Wars. But students who are successful in their English, Philosophy, and History classes are independent and creative thinkers who can write and speak clearly, who can juggle many responsibilities, who can research a project, and who can take steps to educate themselves. And employers will be falling all over themselves to hire people with these skills. Consequently, it doesn’t matter so much what your major is as much as it does that you acquire these more general skills. So select a major that you find interesting, which will challenge you, which will make you smarter, and don’t worry exclusively about “what you can do” with a degree in, say, religious studies.

Even when it comes to the more vocationally-related majors like nursing or business or education or biology, it is sure to be the case that the knowledge you will need in your job will far outstrip what you will learn in your college classes. This is not a failing of the college classes, it is just a fact that specific industries and jobs require highly specific knowledge. It is also a fact that what you need to know to be an accountant or a teacher or a nurse or a biologist will change in response to advances in those fields. (Think, for example, about how much more today’s middle school teachers need to know about computers compared to their predecessors 30 years ago.) One of the goals of a college education is to give you the general knowledge into which you can fit the more specific knowledge required by your particular job. And, more importantly, a college education will give you the ability to teach yourself, so that when you need a new job skill, you’ll be prepared.

When you get a job, the employer very likely will train you to do whatever it is that needs to be done. Large corporations have entire human resources departments and internal “universities” the sole purpose of which is to train the new employees to perform the necessary tasks. The Widget Corporation will understand if you can’t come in on the first day of the job and start making the widgets; their trainers will show you how to do that. But what they won’t show you is how to write clearly, how to organize your time, how to give a presentation to the Board of Directors, how to ask questions, and how to make decisions. What an employer wants above all is an employee who can think, and that is what they expect from people with a college education. Once you understand that it is these more generally intellectual skills which employers desire, you’ll realize that they can be acquired in just about any major.

The second problem, then, with the simple Can Opener Answer is that it fails to recognize that it is the general skills and not simply the domain-specific content knowledge which turns college graduates into desirable employees. I think I can put the point this way. A college education does not, as most people believe, prepare you do to something. Rather, it prepares you to do anything.4

How To Get The Most Out of College

Now that we understand the value of a college education, we can think about what you should do in college, and how you can make the most of your college years. Given that college is valuable not simply because it gets you a job, but because it prepares you to be a complete person, and given that what you want from college in the way of job-related skills are general intellectual abilities more than particular, task-specific knowledge, what should you do? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some about which I’m fairly confident.

1. Write as much as you can. Then write some more. The written word is the medium of academic communication. Academics talk to one another through books and published articles. Students talk to their professors through exams and term papers. If you cannot write well, you will not succeed in college, it’s as simple as that. I once spoke to a group of college juniors, and I asked them what they wish they knew about college when they were entering freshmen. One of them5 said that he wished he had known how much writing he would have to do, and to how high a standard his writing would be held. So now you know: writing is crucially important.

And since writing is a skill like juggling or playing the guitar, the only way to get better at it is to practice. Write at every opportunity. Keep a class journal. Take notes when you read (and don’t simply underline or highlight your books. This is next to worthless.). Write drafts of your assigned papers. Demand feedback on your writing from your professors. The more you write, the better a writer you will become. And, you will find, the better a thinker you will become, because more than anything else, writing is a form of thinking out loud. Write for yourself, to clarify your own thinking, not simply because you have a paper due at the end of the term. Because writing is the medium of academic communication, you need to treat it that way—as a form of communication. Don’t think of your papers as something that you turn in for a grade, but as an opportunity to talk to your professors—to tell them what you have been thinking about. I hardly need say that if you are a talented writer, you will succeed in the workplace. You won’t have to write essays on Jane Austen or the Protestant Reformation once you leave college, but you will have to write memos and reports and presentations and speeches, and honing this skill in college will serve you well once you leave.

2. Talk. And not just about your weekend plans or about the details of your friends’ love lives. Talk about ideas that fascinate you. Talk about politics and religion and racism and abortion and all the other issues that are important but which are not usually talked about in “polite society”. It is through talking about these issues that you may very well come to turn confusion into clarity. Many of these questions can only be solved when a number of minds come together at once, and gathering in a group and talking is the best way to bring minds together. How will you know if there is a flaw in your position if you don’t show it to someone else? Moreover, you can use your talking about these issues as practice for the talking that you will have to do with your spouse, your children, your co-workers, your boss, and the members of your town council. Speaking to others in private and to groups in public is one of those life and job skills that I was talking about above, and if you can treat college as an opportunity for honing that skill, you will be ready to talk in these other sorts of situations. Finally, as you will soon learn, talking about ideas is valuable for its own sake. The late-night conversations at coffee houses or in dorm rooms about the meaning of life and the way to fix the world are just plain fun. Do it as often as you can.

3. Take responsibility for your education. Here’s the part where college distinguishes itself from high school. High school students are there because they have to be. College students are in college because they want to be. (And make sure you really want to be in college before you go. It is a sizeable investment of time and money, and if there’s something else you’d rather be doing, you should take some time and re-assess your situation. Taking a year off to figure out what you want, and entering college with a clear plan in mind can make all the difference in the world.) You are paying dearly for your college education, so you should go out and get it. Don’t wait for someone else to hand it to you; it won’t come. Taking responsibility for your own education manifests itself in small ways, and in larger ways. On the small side it means going to the dictionary when you run across a word you don’t know. It also means asking your professor to read a draft of your essay, or raising your hand in class to ask for a difficult point to be repeated. But taking responsibility for your education means more than this. It means seeking out challenging courses and inspiring professors, for only if you push yourself by taking hard courses will you improve your academic and intellectual skills. It means having the courage to change your major if you find your current one uninteresting. It means engaging your friends in the dormitories and coffee shops about what you are learning in the classroom. It means speaking up and agitating for change if things aren’t going the way you want. If you sit passively through your classes, skipping the readings, and taking only the easy courses, you will fail to gain the very education to which you are committing so much time and money.

It might help to think of college as a sort of health club—a health club for the mind.6 There are all sorts of machines in the health club: these are your professors, your classes, and the many extra-curricular activity opportunities. The machines at this intellectual health club can improve your mind in the way that the weights and stair-climbers at your gym can improve your body. But, just as at the gym, the machines are useless if you don’t use them. Merely buying a health club membership won’t turn flab into muscle; you have to lift weights and do sit-ups. And merely enrolling in college won’t turn an uneducated person into an educated one. Doing the reading, talking in class, visiting your professors in office hours, pursuing research topics outside of class—this is the sort of “machine using” behavior that will turn the gray matter inside your head into a well-toned mental muscle.

4. Do something completely different. I see so many students who take the same menu of courses they took in high school: history, English, math, science, and a foreign language. All of those are important classes, but a quick glance at any college’s course catalog will show that there are dozens if not hundreds of comparatively exotic courses. Religious studies, communication, anthropology, economics, psychology, film theory—the list goes on. Take a course that is completely different from anything you have taken before. Explore the unknown. Not only might the strange and exotic be something you like (and have a talent for!), but the challenge of these new courses will push you to develop the intellectual skills I have been talking about. This injunction to do something completely different shouldn’t stop at the course catalog, however. Find the person on campus most different from you and take them out to coffee. Try out for a play, join the debate team, write for the newspaper, join a campus service organization. Try your hand at some of those activities that you would never have done in high school. Of course you will meet new people, but the primary reason for engaging in these pursuits is to discover something about yourself. Maybe you would enjoy the theatre or find that you have a talent for organizing fund-drives (and can translate that into a career!). It is foolish to commit yourself to a life-plan before you have discovered what you like and what talents you have. And after you get a “real job” and “settle down” you will find precious little time for these extra-curricular pursuits.

5. Become curious. The late Canadian novelist Robertson Davies has hit upon the essence of college. “Energy and curiosity are the lifeblood of universities,” Davies had one of his characters say. “The desire to find out, to uncover, to dig deeper, to puzzle out obscurities, is the spirit of the university and it is a channelling of that unresting curiosity that holds mankind together.”7 Since this ‘unresting curiosity’ is the essence of any college, succeeding during the next four years requires that you tap into this energy, and that you become an unrestingly curious person yourself. Feed your curiosity by taking courses that interest you, rather than the courses which might look good on a law school application. Find those issues and problems that interest you and pursue them doggedly. Become curious about everything—about medieval history, about the structure of the cell, about what your roommates are learning in their classes, about the research interests of your professors—and you will find not only that you are getting better grades, but that you are becoming a smarter, more intellectually independent person. And that is, at the end, the goal of a college education.8


1 Andrew P. Mills is an assistant professor of philosophy at Otterbein College, where he teaches a wide array of philosophy courses. He received his B.A. from the University of Michigan, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of scholarly articles in the philosophy of language and in philosophical logic.

2 Of course in such a situation can openers may have value as antiques, or as objects of art.  And that is a real sort of value, but it is not (at least not standardly) why we think can openers are valuable now.

3 Like this very essay: it’s an examination of the value of a college education.

4 I learned of this way of putting the point from Ami Berger, though I don’t think she was the originator of this thought.

5 His name is Caleb Bell.

6 For this health club analogy I am indebted to Craig Froehle.

7 This is from Davies’ novel, The Rebel Angels.

8 An earlier, abbreviated, version of this essay was published under the title “College is more than job training” in The Blade (Toledo, Ohio) on September 30, 2000.  For helpful conversation on this essay, I would like to thank Lori Aronson, Ami Berger, Brad Cohen, Craig Froehle, Glenna Jackson, Brain Lindeman, Kristine LaLonde, Mary MacLeod, Lisa Pollak, Charles Salter, and the audiences at Otterbein College to whom I have presented the main ideas contained above.  I would like to dedicate this essay to Jack Meiland, who ignited my thinking on the question of why a college education is valuable. His little book, College Thinking, is as valuable a guide to college as I can think of.

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