Ever since coming to Luther, I have found great value in many aspects of college, whether it be the wonderful opportunities that a small college offers versus a large university, or the more simple things, like learning to grocery shop frugally and cook more things than just scrambled eggs or pasta.
Yet the one thing I absolutely despise about college is that time before every semester when I must log onto my.luther.edu and submit my payment for tuition, room, and board. Looking at the thousands of dollars my family has invested in my education, the student debt crisis, and the percentage of college graduates forced to take on a minimum wage job and live at their parents’ houses, I feel duped. In my most cynical moments, I feel as if a college degree is simply the new equivalent of a high school degree except that you pay thousands of dollars extra for it. Oftentimes I convince myself that I would have been better off going to trade school to become an electrician or a plumber.
Fortunately, I am not presently in one of those cynical moods, although I still believe that going to trade school is an excellent avenue of education that more people ought to consider. Yet the underlying question remains—what is the value of a college education, especially a liberal arts degree like mine? And I think, when I approach the question objectively, rather than with the usual mix of negative emotions towards exorbitant college prices, I realize that the way in which I choose to define “value” is important. The value of technical skills like electrical work and plumbing are tangible both literally (hands-on skills with direct impacts) and economically (as long as there are toilets, there will be plumbers). As a person who greatly appreciates empirical evidence, these two views of value work well.
Yet the values of a liberal arts education are much less distinct. Of course, some skills—like podcast editing in adobe audition, interpreting statistical analysis, or the use of gel electrophoresis to separate DNA—are tangible, technical skills. However, the skills that liberal arts institutions boast about, such as “critical thinking and analysis,” “oral and written communication skills,” and “exposure to a wide breadth of knowledge” are much more abstract. When I go to submit my tuition payment and see the hard numbers of college costs, I immediately question the value of my education in terms of these hard numbers. Yet while I cannot quantify the value of my presentation skills or my ability to analyze and synthesize a complex array of research papers into a culminating thesis, I intuitively know that these skills are quite valuable.
To be perfectly honest, I will continue to be mad every time I need to pay Luther College more money and I am still half-considering going to electrician school after I graduate just so I can have some hands-on knowledge to complement all my “critical thinking” abilities. Yet I will also continue to build on my intangible skills, gain some new ones, and remind myself that value comes in many shapes and sizes—not just in numbers.