College degrees don’t exist to provide you with information. You can get the same education for free online, if you know what to look for*. The degree exists solely to prove to others that you’ve been exposed to the knowledge, and that you’ve absorbed it sufficiently to apply it. The college itself exists to provide you direction to what’s available to learn.
Many people who set out to get a classical education of the liberal arts might start with the several online lecture recordings compiled for consumption, but they likely won’t know how to build a curriculum. They won’t immediately see the connection between philosophy and mathematics, or mathematics to music, or music to literature, or literature to science, or science back to philosophy. College exists to provide a guide. To show the student those connections.
So, I’d postulate that unless one is already schooled in the connections between these disciplines, one would be hard pressed to replicate the education available in a college, even with all of the lectures recorded for posterity and free for viewing. You don’t know what you don’t know, and unless you know what to look for, you will not get the answers you seek.
The value of college, therefore, is dependent upon what value you place on a society that has been taught to think critically. A society that values science and classic philosophy. A society that values knowledge.
I think it’s important to the nature of our system of governance to have a highly educated population that is well read on the subjects of the day, and has the ability to think critically about what they are being fed from the media. Especially in an environment in which media is corporate-owned and no longer considered a public service in recompense for the free public airwaves they use. When News organizations are required to be profit centers, the metric for news isn’t accuracy or depth of coverage. It’s popularity. It’s ratings. And that’s a poor metric for the objective quality of the news we consume.
In that environment, it is more important than ever to be able to consider the information we gather and compare it critically to our experiences and to other sources of information. And that’s the type of training a classic education provides.
I would argue that the laser focus of learning just what one needs to be successful in a particular field might produce a better cost-benefit analysis with regard to the investment you make vs. the financial rewards of the career you pursue, which is what I think you’re talking about in this essay. But I caution all the readers to consider the inherent value of knowledge and critical thought beyond how much money you can make. there are many entrepreneurs who have made a fortune in silicon Valley over the past generation. Many who pursued knowledge based on the cost-benefit suggested in this essay. They are wildly successful in their fields, but have no knowledge of classic philosophy or macro economics, and thus, they advocate, and put their vast money behind, public policy that would devastate the national economy. They are very smart, and very talented in what they do, but they’ve never been exposed to the kind of thought process that would allow them to make wise decisions regarding public policy.
This is dangerous, because these are people that are significantly powerful. This is what happens when the society values education, not for the inherent value of the information, but for how much money it will produce for the individual. We need powerful, important people to be able to reason out that making more money is less important than a habitable planet to live on. That it is more important to ensure everyone has equitable access to healthcare than it is to give themselves tax breaks. And that money in the hands of the workers who create their wealth ensures the customer base necessary for them to perpetuate their wealth. That by redistributing wealth to the middle class, everyone makes more money. Even rich people.
We need more Elon Musks, and less Peter Thiels.