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Does Tertiary Education Pay Off?

This is the season for thousands of graduates of schools of higher learning to march down the aisle to receive their degrees. Whether the time, effort and money involved were worthwhile expenditures depend on what expectations graduates had when they made their decision to apply for admission.

If the primary reason was to land a well-paying job right off the bat in today's economy, they are going to be in for a rude awakening. But contrary to popular opinion, this disappointment is new only in terms of severity. Education was never intended to be preparation exclusively for employment. The author Joe Queenan reveals this confusion in an essay that was published in the Wall Street Journal on May 15 with the apt title "A Lament for the Class of 2010."

Education and training have two different purposes. The former is concerned with concepts, while the latter is concerned with skills. Although they sometimes overlap, they are not synonymous. Unless the distinction is clearly understood, the debate over the value of tertiary education will continue to be muddled.

If Millennials want to enhance the likelihood of landing a well-paying job right after graduation, they would be better advised to apply to a trade school. These schools come in different forms. They can be two-year programs in community colleges that offer an A.A. or four-year programs in private institutions that offer a B.S. If time and money are of the essence, Millennials can earn a certificate from community colleges that makes them immediately job-ready in fewer than two years.

But if they want an education, they need to accept the fact that what they learn may not make them readily employable. As John Keats wrote in The Sheepskin Psychosis (Delta Books, 1963) in talking about education: "... at least one of its purposes is to help a man obtain a sense of perspective on the world and some view of himself with regard to his obligations to others." And on May 15, Peter Berkowitz wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal in which he asked: "How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life?" ("Why Liberal Education Matters")

These outcomes, of course, may be considered luxuries for all but the most affluent. After all, bills have to be paid no matter how much psychic income an education delivers. Making the decision even harder is the prediction of Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. He believes that the only jobs that will be safe in the next decade will be those that cannot be offshored electronically. As a result, training to become an auto mechanic, plumber or electrician will be good investments. But even the work done by white-collar specialists such as certified public accountants can be performed abroad.

In the final analysis, no one can tell high school seniors which path to follow. Choices always have consequences. But that's a platitude they have heard many times before.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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