September is a time of hope and promise. The arrival of late summer and fall usually sees thousands of students at all levels returning to school. In the primary education area (elementary through high school) the focus is on preparing students, essentially, with skills needed for life no matter what they ultimately choose to do. It is a crucial period as the performance there (or nonperformance) carries through the rest of their lives.
We all have a stake in their success, whether or not we have children or even if our children have graduated some time in the past. As our children advance through this system, they begin to formulate what they want to do with their lives. It is incredibly important that we, as a society, guarantee the resources necessary to the educational system at this level, as it is a clear — but often forgotten — investment in our collective futures. The future of our society, the foundation of our social security programs and the vibrancy of our communities are intricately linked to the sustained quality of our primary educational programs, period. We cannot “afford” to let these programs decline because of a lack of resource commitments.
But then what? Fall is also a time when high school juniors, but certainly seniors and their families, as well, consider options for further education. There is and will always be a debate on the role of higher education in our society. Does it really offer a “return on the investment?” Should all students go on to college or community college, or should some go through a professional trade- and skill-based program (e.g. electrician, HVAC, electronic repair, etc.)? The cost of education is clearly increasing — recent news stories have shown that the annual cost of some preschools exceeds the annual cost of a college education.
The next time you go to the store, the mall, purchase a product or receive a service, take a moment to reflect on the skills required by that individual who provides the service or who built the product. The term “knowledge worker” is mentioned all the time, but the simple, more direct meaning is that those without some sort of advanced skills will find it increasingly difficult to achieve a reasonable standard of living and obtain employment. The number of “unskilled” jobs in our society is, has been and will continue to decline. Again and again statistics show that the lifelong earnings of individuals differ dramatically with educational levels. But is money the proper criterion? Some studies even show that the quality of life (health, happiness) also differs dramatically with education. The simple point is that our evolving society demands increased skills and education for both employment and success, and those with only primary education will find employment increasingly difficult.
But what “level” is enough? That is a tough question. Some, for a variety of reasons, will not be able to advance beyond high school and their employment will become more and more of a challenge. Others will not be served well by a college or community college education but will flourish and prosper with a professional or trade education.
But what of the costs of college education? Having taught for years in an expensive private college and in a public college, I can assure you that the fourfold increase in cost of an undergraduate education in a high-priced private institution is not worth it. The fundamental truth is that no college can guarantee success in life or even a job. What college can do is further shape and develop the individual and prepare them to enter into the “knowledge” work force noted earlier. As such, public universities are well worth the investment.
I often liken a college degree to the “ante” in a poker game. For those who have not played poker, before the cards are dealt there is usually a small bet required to play the game, the “ante.” One can of course refuse to “ante-up,” but then they do not get to play the game — that is, they have no opportunity to win or lose. But the ante does not guarantee winning or losing either: it allows the individual to play the game and to have the opportunity to win or lose. A college degree or a technical degree is the “ante” in life — it allows one to participate in afforded opportunities, but it does not guarantee success.
The supporters of higher-priced private education will not be comfortable with the observations here. Yes, it is true that a degree from a well-known private institution will open more doors initially (a different set of players at the poker table) but the degree received does not guarantee future success. Success is achieved by the motivation, skills and effort of the individual and that is often a function of the support given growing up in a family setting. As families begin to consider higher education for their children they should consider “what kind of education” and that the price of that education is not a guarantee of success.
John F. Mahon holds the John M. Murphy Chair in International Business Policy and Strategy and is a professor of management at the Maine Business School, University of Maine. He has served as dean of the College of Business, Public Policy and Health and as provost, ad interim at the University of Maine.