The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Recently, The New York Times Magazine ran a column inquiring into the value of a college education.

They’re not talking about the personal value of sitting in Van Pelt for 15 hours straight — good-bye, fair Tuesday. They’re talking cold, hard numbers: How economical is obtaining a degree? Writer David Leonhardt questions whether the actual education gained is worth the years spent and the debt incurred, or whether, as skeptics argue, students who go to college would still be the leaders if nobody went to college. He references studies demonstrating the unsurprising fact that college graduates out-earn high-school-only graduates, but asks “if the students make the college or the college makes the students,” in terms of earning potential.

Twenty read-throughs and a video aide later, I agree with his eventual conclusion — students should strive for a college education. However, while the recession has brought finances to the forefront of everyone’s mind and led to enrollment increases at many colleges nationwide, his approach to evaluating education disregards the important intangible gains that go beyond simple dollars and cents.

Leonhardt writes as an economic columnist, so the fact that he gauges worth by earnings is understandable. Significant qualitative benefits of a college education exist, though, whether at a community college or an Ivy. Although costly to both psyches and pocketbooks, higher education can serve as a redeeming force in American society. And regardless of whether it’s economically worth it, we should all work to increase enrollment at institutions of higher education for the public benefit.

Individually, every citizen (and non-citizen!) stands to gain much from a few extra years of education in some form, be it community-college night classes or full-time enrollment at Penn. Classes provide an opportunity for intellectual and personal exploration that most would not seek out elsewhere. Students explore their interests, and, as any cognitive science-cum-English major knows, a single meaningful class can change a life’s path.

Learning about topics outside one’s chosen vocation also lends perspective to different parts of life. I might not earn more as a doctor because of my currently developing acting skills, but my appreciation for the theater arts has grown. Feeling out one’s strengths, weaknesses, interests and disinterests influences hobbies as well as careers, and exposure to various bodies of knowledge leads to a well-rounded individual. Jobs and income deserve attention, but let’s not forget the transmission of culture and a working understanding of the world around us on our list of goals.

And, more importantly, on the macro level, America needs a well-educated citizenry. According to National Science Foundation surveys, science literacy is on the rise, but in 2003, 40 percent of Americans answering a Harris poll still did not choose the correct answer to the question “What is DNA?” Leonhardt states that “Many colleges and high schools fail to do a good job, year after year, with little consequence” — but the consequences of mediocre education resonate dramatically in a democracy. Medical, social and foreign policy all fluctuate with public opinion, which is clearly influenced by education.

In 1925, we had the Scopes Monkey Trial, debating whether evolution should be taught alongside the predominant creationism; almost 85 years later, the question has reversed itself. How large a role did education play in this transition? While high schools certainly impart a great deal of information to the next generation, higher education helps cement that knowledge and, importantly, deepen and enrich it with details.

Ignore the earnings gap. College graduates, methodically exposed to many disciplines, benefit greatly from the money invested in tuition. Generalizing further is difficult, as students’ lives vary greatly depending on major here at Penn; trying to compare the college experience across states and schools is fruitless. Without a doubt, however, extending higher education to such a degree that more Americans can take advantage of it would enrich — and richen — the country.

Lindsey Stull is a College senior from Oklahoma City, Okla. Her e-mail address is

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.