The real value of a college education

Contrary to what you might think, personal growth doesn’t occur inside your head. It happens when you get outside your head. 

There comes a moment when a child thinks of another before he or she thinks of themselves. A teenager makes a sacrifice for the good of others. An adult realizes that their behaviors and attitudes hurt people, and then makes a change. These revelations require outside input and examples; some call it divine intervention.

The same goes for intellectual growth. New information cannot come from inside. It must come from outside. And while we learn most of what we know during our early years, we continue to learn throughout our lives.

That’s why one of the two most dangerous educational trends in our society is our increasing tendency to use smartphones and social media to build iron gates around our own minds. We decide what we want to believe, and find information to support the belief. We resist change unless it conforms with exactly what we want. With a million different “right ways” banging around, no one is ever happy for long. You can always google a reason not to change and your survivalist brain is all too happy to avoid the work.

The second dangerous trend is society’s increasing tendency to devalue a college education.

First, the word “college” conjures many different connotations. You might imagine Harvard, or you might picture a community college. You could see a trade school or you might just think of John Belushi from Animal House wearing that shirt that simply reads “College.”

Speaking for myself, college was a time of both personal and intellectual growth. It helped me become independent and exposed me to information and ideas I’d otherwise never have encountered.

I grew up in a trailer house in the Sax-Zim bog, and have since enjoyed the privilege of only doing jobs that I like and that comfortably provide for my family. That would not have happened without college. But the reasons are more complicated than you think.

Now, as a disclaimer, I teach at a local community and technical college. So it’s true, it’s literally my job to encourage people to attend college to build perspective and professional skills. But I also understand why some people think college isn’t worth it and I’d like to talk about that.

Higher education has done a poor job of marketing the real value of a college education in the last 20 years. The sales pitch has been “a college degree helps you earn more and achieve more personal and professional success.” And while that was true for me, it hasn’t been true for others. 

College is more expensive. Public colleges now cost what private colleges did when I was a kid. If you’re a baby boomer you attended college for the price of one single class today. Costs are higher and state government subsidizes less as a percentage. And there exist many more options, including many private, for-profit colleges that didn’t exist before. All of this makes it very easy to rack up debt. If you don’t graduate, or if you don’t graduate with a good plan, you will owe lots of money for something that might not seem very valuable. 

You hear this talk all the time, usually with the concluding message “Don’t go to college. Learn a trade.” 

Here again we must remember the unfortunate way that vocational training was devalued after the 1970s amid the previous trend of sending people for four-year degrees. Trade schools, like the ones available to my father more than 40 years ago, put young people into good jobs for next to nothing. But even vocational education is more expensive now than before. Furthermore, the best tradespeople don’t just learn their craft, they learn how to adapt to new technology and business trends that affect their chosen field. 

I’ll tell you a dirty little secret about college. A degree is one way to assess educational outcomes, to tell the world that you’ve taken time to learn new things. Training is one way to learn how to do a job. But it is possible to become a well-rounded, intelligent individual without a degree or training. 

Possible, but vastly less likely. College puts you in the room with people who know how to do things. You will meet people who want some of the same things as you and others who want completely different things. And that’s good, because what you want at first will change as you gather new information. If you learn that now, you won’t have to learn it later when you’re stuck in economic circumstances that make life harder.

You will never find the answers to life’s questions on Reddit, Facebook or Snapchat. The first ten hits on Google can’t tell you all you need to know. The truth is complex and can seem difficult, even frightening as you approach it. However, the truth becomes much less frightening when you dedicate yourself to learning how to process new information, rather than how to reinforce opinions.

That’s the value of college. Higher education is not about the job you get after college; it’s about the life you’ll live until the day you die. It’s about the peace of mind and strength of mind that can only come from getting outside your head and into this big world we all want to get better. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Tom Knutila says

    Hey Aaron- your take on the value of a college education is right on target- I would take it one step further and argue for a dreaded “liberal arts” education. College is not a vocational training program- it is a critical thinking training program. That is the real value, and in the scope of a lifetime, in most instances a bargain.

  2. There are forces conspiring to make education fail, decrease demand, and in the end cause educational programs to collapse due to rejection of financing of education by the public.

    One problem is that we are seeing a trend in which some people on one side of the political spectrum actually want to make it difficult or impossible to learn the facts about history, science, and the world. These “ignorance is strength” people are launching a nationwide plan to undermine critical thinking and access to information at all levels of learning, an idea that they hope to use as a wedge issue politically. The people advocating “Critical Ignorance Theory” have actually come to the Northland from outside to hold meetings to try to upset people and make them oppose teaching of information about history and social science that goes beyond what is printed on the currency. They hope to undermine the popularity of their political opponents, but killing liberal arts education in order to preserve privilege is the goal. The United States is the most powerful and successful country in history, and that success should make it safe or even useful to examine the faults in our history and culture, but opponents of liberal education want us to believe that that would threaten our way of life and should be stopped. Thomas Jefferson impregnated a fourteen-year-old slave girl who was his dead wife’s half sister, founded the pro-slavery party in the US, and was an incompetent businessman who squandered three fortunes living a lavish lifestyle. Martin Luther King plagiarized part of his doctoral thesis and was regularly unfaithful to his wife. Those facts are not going to cause the nation to collapse, but may provide a more realistic picture of what being a “great man” means and of trends running through our history and our current society.

    Another problem has been colleges and universities marketing programs that pretend to provide vocational training but actually are useless. Programs in film and television, recording engineering, sports management, fashion industry, and so on annually suck in thousands of naive teens paying tens of thousands of dollars to learn jobs that are effectively unavailable or available to a minuscule number of people (many of whom have nepotistic connections,) leaving the kids with no job, no marketable skills, and crippling debt, but the schools with the tuition money in the bank. This leaves a bad impression of the worth of education.

  3. People have to make a living. After going tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a college education there should be a paycheck somewhere at the end to pay for it.

  4. David W Kannas says

    I just read this column. It’s one of your best. You said everything I believe about college. My hope for my five kids was that among them would be an artist; none are, unless you count one nurse, two engineers, one social worker, and one IT grad. All have a spark of an artist in them in how they see the world. That, I think, is because they went to college. Not one of them views the world as caste in stone, never to change. I, like you, taught at a two-year college (adjunct). Among my students was a cross section of humanity. Some were engaged and interested in what I and the subject had to say. Some were along for the ride, an expensive ride. Whatever the motivation for going, college will open many new worlds to those who attend. Thank you for the education you offer.

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