I am an educator. I have been teaching for 10 years. This week, as I reach a huge milestone in my own continuing education, finishing my Master’s degree, the field of education is facing an existential crisis. K-12 schools are underfunded by state and local governments and have huge issues in inequality. College educations are increasingly necessary but wildly expensive. Covid-19 has magnified many of these problems and brought to our attention how vulnerable the system is. To use a finance metaphor, our society is in a period of price discovery for education. We cannot figure out what it is worth to us.
Is College Worth It?
In this week’s episode of his Netflix series Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj asks, “Is College Still Worth It?“. He demonstrates the paradox of college education becoming so expensive that it is unrealistic, while also becoming more necessary than ever for one to live a healthy, happy life in the U.S.A. David Stein also did an excellent podcast episode on this question last year.
This issue was recently brought up with Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk by an audience member at a conference, who asked, “with more jobs asking for higher levels of degrees, scholarships are not changing amounts and it’s getting harder and harder every year to pay tuition, even with using scholarships. How can college and industries make it easier to afford college?”
Musk replied that “you can learn anything you want for free” without having to do “annoying homework assignments.” Then–as he often does–he added more color: “I think college is basically for fun and to prove that you can do your chores, but they’re not for learning.”
Musk isn’t alone is suggesting you can skip college and save money learning the content on your own. I certainly considered this idea before returning to school to get my Master’s degree. However, for years I had been working on learning on my own, and I found that it has its pitfalls. How do you make sure you learn everything you need to learn? You have to have a curriculum and some guidance from people with experience who can help make sure you don’t miss essential material.
You also need to verify with an employer that you have been trained on this content. I get a $5,000 raise from my employer for having a Master’s degree. They are unable to give me that raise without a copy of a transcript that says I completed all the necessary credits. When it comes to my paycheck, it is about what I have done more than about what I know.
My Graduate School Experience
I decided 2 years ago that I wanted to learn a traditional business and economics curriculum to fill gaps in what I was learning on my own, and I wanted the extra $5,000/year I will eventually earn for having Master’s degree (my district builds our Master’s raise gradually, rather than all at once). Putting aside the obvious financial impact, let’s look at the educational impact. Now that I am finishing my degree, was it worth it?
On the surface, it seems a bit ridiculous to pay about $1,000 per class to be told to read a $100 textbook and write a 25-page paper about it. I could have saved $1,000 and just spent the $100 on the book. I could have written about it on my blog or another web site in a more succinct and original style instead of in an APA-formatted monstrosity that nobody will read except the professor.
But that right there is the key: the professor reading the work. I read thousands of pages worth of books and papers and wrote hundreds of pages of papers over the last 2 years, and every page of that work, and it was often my professors guiding me toward what to read and how to write about it. More importantly, those professors gave me feedback on my work. They challenged my methods and ideas and helped me to improve my writing–even if the poor quality of this blog post suggests otherwise.
At times, they also pushed me harder than I would have pushed myself. macroeconomics was the hardest class I have every taken in my life. The textbook was Romer’s Advanced Macroeconomics, a thick, dense book that is comprehensive but primarily focused on mathematics, including advanced statistics and calculus concepts that I have never seen before. I spent about 7-8 hours on each weekly homework assignment, plus all the time reading, researching, and writing papers. My final paper suggested a New Keynesian monetary policy structure for the Bank Indonesia that would use real GDP targeting instead of inflation targeting. This class really pushed me beyond anything I would have accomplished on my own. It also left me with a longer list of economic texts I want to read and concepts I want to study further, so my independent study after grad school will be stronger because I took this class.
Were there classes that weren’t worth it? It certainly felt that way at times. Many of the concepts I had to learn in business classes were simplistic, and the papers I had to write were restrictive. I had to follow the rubric and was usually punished for venturing away from it into anything too creative. This was frustrating, and I often felt like I was checking off boxes instead of learning. These frustrations made me excited to finish graduate school so that I could go back to learning on my own again.
From my experience, formal education can be frustrating and restrictive at. times, while it can be comprehensive and motivational at other times. In general, I would say that it was worth the investment. I know more and can earn more income because of it. Nevertheless, there are reforms we could make to the education system to accomplish these goals more efficiently.
Back to Independent Learning
I finished my last 2 classes 3 days ago and breathed a huge sigh of relief. For 2 years I spent 15-30 hours per week (on top of a full time professional job) studying what professors told me to study and writing what professors told me to write. Now I am free to take my own creative path again. I am obsessed with learning and enjoy writing, so I will certainly continue to do both. Now I have new fundamental skills to support those activities and can take my own directions in what I study and work at my own pace.
I have a few projects that I am working on now that graduate school is over.
- Reworking curriculum for the classes I teach to be more differentiated, flexible, and comprehensive.
- Composing and arranging band and percussion ensemble music again.
- Revitalizing this and 2 other blogs–and possibly some other content creation platforms–to create more content, attract more visitors, and possibly monetize them.
- Writing for more web sites and publications, including some that demand a higher level or research and quality.
- Working my way through a long queue of books that I have been wanting to read.
- Continuing my independent studies of history and economics, with a new emphasis on connecting to 2 subjects with each other and with social issues.
I want to read more of the classics and more landmark texts in addition to new books that push the envelope. Here is what I am simultaneously working through:
- Hayek’s Prices and Production and Other Works
- Mises’s Theory of Money and Credit
- Herodotus’s The Histories about Ancient Greece and Persia
- Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States
There is an amazing passage in The Histories that I would like to leave you with as you ponder what the ideal approach to education, formal and/or independent, may be, and what it is worth.
The Lydian king Croesus wants his friend Solon, the Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, to acknowledge that Croesus is the happiest man on earth. Solon doesn’t bite. Instead, he gives Croesus a lecture on human happiness filled with realistic/pessimistic philosophy and praxeological concepts that would be studied thousands of years later by economists like Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises. According to Herodotus (as translated by Tom Holland), Solon tells Croesus,
The longer the span of someone’s existence, the more certain he is to see and suffer much that he would rather have been spared… Human life is nothing if not subject to the vagaries of chance… Great wealth, after all, is no more guaranteed to bring a man happiness than is daily subsistence–unless, that is, good fortune proves to be the rich man’s constant companion, enabling him to keep all his blessings intact, and bringing his life to a pleasant conclusion… No country can produce everything that it needs, for no matter what resources a land may boast, it is bound to be deficient in some, and being the best is simply a matter of being better endowed than the rest. It is the same with mortals: flesh and bone can never be self-sufficient. The man who has one thing will lack another. Whoever is blessed with the most advantages in life, and retains them to the end and dies a peaceful death, that is the man, my Lord, who in my opinion best deserves the title [of happiest person in the world]. No matter what, you must always look to the end, look to how it will turn out: for the heavens will often grant men a glimpse of happiness, only to snatch it away so that not a trace of it remains.
Needless to say, this is not the response that Croesus was looking for, and he isn’t happy about it. But, as the reader might easily predict, he comes to realize later in life that Croesus was right.
We often seek to gratify ourselves in the present with little concern about the past or the future. Paradoxically, at times we can be so obsessed with past or the future that we don’t utilize the present effectively enough. Education provides knowledge and skills that can enhance our whole life, although not without sacrificing time and money first.
As Solon says, the payoff is at the end, and anything life gives us before then can be taken away–that is–except for our education. Education improves what we can contribute to life and get out of life. The actions education allows us to take for ourselves and others are among the few things that life cannot take back from us. They are memories we can look back at in the future and say “yes, I lived a good life, and I am the happiest person in the world.”