College education, is it worth it?

Since this discussion keeps coming again and again, adding this thread:


Past disucssions (please add):

[Rushabh Mehta] On education, again to clarify my position. I think everyone should do things they are believe in rather than do it for the sake of society or others. Most of education is just blindly following what others are doing without really thinking about the value of it and most of education turns out to be utterly useless (the “degrees” though have value in society). I am not saying there is a “right path”, just that the given path may not be right. Go to college, or don’t. Be the master of that decision.

[Rushabh Mehta] Same with work. Do something that is a labour of love. Don’t just work for money. Work because you find meaning in what you do. Don’t compromise. I assume most people in this group have the ability to find this kind of work. I am not talking about people for whom survival is the primary concern

[Akshay Dinesh] Well, are you thinking about the consequences of this worldview? Are you thinking about the irony in talking about “choose a job that makes you happy” when people do not have access to healthcare, money, free time, when people are constantly facing discrimination, etc?

[Kailash Nadh] “Do what you makes you happy” really only applies to the top, privileged strata. If yo end up being born in an impoverished and underprivileged environment, there’s no “choice”. You exist and subsist on whatever is available. Few can break out of that. Then there’s the whole caste system also on top of the economic system. I think it’s a very privileged statement to make…

[Nilesh Trivedi] “Don’t you dare encourage someone to drop out of college. That is not your kid. If that thought is entering your mind, you call their parents. Let students be students. Let the young adults have their young adulthood. As their parents, it’s scary as a hell to have an adult preying on that underdeveloped prefrontal cortex.”


“This narrow argument that dropping out of college and focusing on interests like coding, design, and other IT related fields is practically possible with internet connection and free time and English language – that’s an argument I can agree with” ~source


I don’t know if it’s really worth it as I’m still studying in the college, but there’s something which concerns me is how wrong they teach computer science or engineering in the classroom. Well, one might choose computer science/engineering to learn better in person. There are always ample amount of resources on in the internet, but in-person listening and learning from someone might work for the most. But it’s not happening right.

College education might be worth, if the teacher is the one with good skills. Personal suggestion teacher’s in college should start suggesting their students to think ootb and learn ootb and maintain their college studies at the same time. IDK bout other college’s but atleast in my college we are taught languages just to past cuz they think having good grades is gonna get them a decent job. Honestly speaking, for me I don’t feel college education is being worth in the diploma stage (engineering might be in the near future but hoping it won’t).

Also, the narrow minded approach - Surely you're Joking Mr.Feynman - Words of a terrible kid check out the last section of Thoughts.

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Just to present a flippant analogy, what are we to conclude from the fact that every married couple seems to have fights and there is a lot of unhappiness in marriages? So would a question like “Is marriage worth it?” make sense at all? Not that we do not have opinions or cannot answer yes or no. It’s just that trying to answer a question framed narrowly in that fashion is a waste of time.

Coming back to education, there are too many unstated assumptions behind questions like this. Examples:
• College education should lead to a “good job” or financial success generally. If it does not “it is not worth it”.
• Most colleges are of poor quality; so college education is not worth it.
• Everyone has a choice. Every student has the ability to decide. They can choose to go or not to go to college.
• Do what makes you happy. (the worst one of all, if I may say so.)
Once we loosen or acknowledge such assumptions, we can frame the questions differently. In my view, we then have to acknowledge that the issue is more complex, and the questions have to be much better if we want decent arguments or answers.

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Poorly framed questions do lead to better framed questions eventually leading to good insights. So, I think it is okay to start with one. I think a slightly better framing would be, “In the age of internet, with many people starting programming, etc before even finishing schooling, does one need to spend time going to a not so great college or are there better things one can do in the same time to gain the same amount of life experience (if not more) in the same time.”

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One of the underlying assumptions here is that the point of going to school / college is to get an “education”. Every human born in this time an age, somehow needs to follow the same path of living life. There is no alternate path. If you are not in college, are you making use of your time? What is a good use of time?

Also it has been proven again and again that very little “education” happens in schools and colleges. How many people who have graduated from colleges can pass a Standard X exam without any preparation? I would say less than 1%.

Yes, poorly framed questions are better than no questions at all; and if we are ready to sharpen them, then a good trigger for a better conversation.

One oft-raised question is “What is a good education?” And since both “good” and “education” seem to be contested, the question that follows is “From whose perspective?”

Since a child beginning school is rarely able to ask or answer these questions, we have to use parents as proxy for the child’s perspective. Most answers might be about material success - to whatever degree that the family can dream of. Parents who are already successful may have more nuanced goals - of “a good life”, or an “ethical life” etc.

Education being a “social process” that perspective is equally important. Governments and businesses may want skilled workers. And social thinkers might want “good citizens”. Just for example - Ambedkar said, “Education is what makes a person fearless, teaches him the lesson of unity, makes him aware of his rights and inspires him to struggle for his rights.”. For him education was/is central to liberating the underprivileged from their bondage.

What then do we do with the nagging feeling that

If the education system neither serves the individual well or meets society’s goals, what then?

Lots of people are trying out new things where the learner is at the center of the system, not the educators (state, curriculum, teachers).

Plug: Here is one I am involved with.

Yes, of course. That is an important response to the challenges. My rather rhetorical question had an ‘ulterior’ motive. It is to argue that the meaningful response to ‘bad’ education is not ‘no education’ (is that possible at all?). We do not give up on healthcare or even relationships because there is too much of bad medicine or bad relationships. Education is in that category.

There has to be a society-wide effort to improve education and educational outcomes. Even ‘conventional’ education has a role. For the majority of underprivileged kids whose parents may be marginalised or uneducated, ‘alternative’ education may not be an easy or obvious choice. Just getting basic skills of reading, writing and math in place is important. Getting students in college better at getting sustainable livelihoods instead of being cogs in a massive and destructive production system is important too.

Who will do it? Unless a large number of people ‘wake up’ and demand better outcomes from public systems, this change won’t happen. Alternative systems will continue to exist and thrive. But we need to attend to the vast majority too, who have no voice and no choices.

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At some level we need to question this kind of thinking as well. Currently, with all the good intentions, we identify children as being “marginalised” and “uneducated” and our solution is to make them “cogs in the capitalist wheel”. Better be a rich slave than a free-spirited pauper. Maybe it is upto these “marginalised” folks to join the system on their own terms? Maybe they come up with better ways of co-existing with the ecosystem?

My argument is also rhetorical in the interest of maybe bringing out our own biases in what is a “civilised society”? What is the balance between freedom and safety?

I am not advocating “a particular type of education”, but more freedom in general for people to choose their own path. Much like how atheism is an “absence of a religion” rather than a new religion. Our approach to education should be a lot more circumspect rather than lets drag each toddler into a concentration / indoctrination camp (saracasm).

I see your argument, broadly, as advocating “freedom to choose” regardless of social status. This tension between individual choice and social (justice) intervention is an old one. Instead of seeing these are mutually exclusive we could ask, “What would make such choice possible and meaningful? If given the freedom to choose the kind of education they wish, can everyone make the choice with equal probability of “success”?

My response is that the answer is inextricably linked to the kind of society in which such choices are made. Take a family in Norway, a small, relatively homogeneous, very wealthy and socially equitable nation, as an example. There are powerful pre-existing conditions that facilitate choice and provide social safety nets. The kind of freedom of choice that you seem to prefer, of education or livelihood, will work very well here.

A large multicultural, heterogeneous, poor and unequal society like India is a counterexample. I would argue that talking of freedom of choice in this society is almost meaningless. The right conditions do not exist.

My general argument is that freedom of choice is possible only after some degree of social justice and equitable opportunity already exists. This was the position the constituent assembly took. As a footnote, seventy five years into the experiment, we can acknowledge that the power of existing advantage of caste and class proved too hard to overcome. “Free to choose”, in this setting, is loaded in favour of the privileged.

I am not setting this context, you are. The context for me is the audience in this group or the millions of children who are forced to go to college. I don’t think most of them are victims of social injustice (other than their forced schooling). Assuming there is no social injustice, then you would agree that freedom of choice should be paramount.

The problem with this line of thinking is that we have already assumed a particular model of success. I would go one step deeper and ask what do they mean by “success”? Is it acquisition of wealth and status? It is impossible for us to even imagine another model, and this itself is a sign of our own failure. I am going beyond Marx to Thoreau and Gandhi (Hind Swaraj) - can we start the question at another point? This is not going all the way back to “state of nature” but given the society and freedoms we enjoy as a result of the struggles of the ages, what kind of “freedom” and “equity” can we offer to young people coming of age?

I would argue that it is a very paternalistic attitude. Maybe it stems from our own “guilt” or “sunk cost” into the system we are part of - which unleashes violence in the form of poverty (lack of justice and equity). Let us “save” the “victims” and make them like ourselves. (the brown sahib’s burden)

There was this very interesting interaction I had seen on TV maybe ~10-12 years ago with our then Home Minister, Mr Chidambaram and a bunch of students. He was asked about the rights of tribals in context of Naxalist movements and he replied “Should we keep them in some kind of anthropological museum instead of bringing them to the modern world” (quoting from memory, so he may have used different words).

All I am saying is before dragging people into our way of life, can we ask them what they want? Whose life are we talking about? Is there any alternative acceptable way of living without being a “graduate”? Even in the so-called forward communities, not being a “graduate” is a social stigma. No wonder it has come a coveted status symbol that all groups must have whether they want it or not.

I think our we completely lack the imagination to think of a way where we can have both justice and freedom. Why should those who have no access to justice have no access to freedom as well?

Which is true - and yet here we are. The old gods keep rising from the dead. I am not completely sure that Gandhi was right, but these days I am not sure if he was completely wrong. Our “liberalism” is a cloak - at a deep individual level and in our social lives, our attitudes are still parochial.

I will disagree. “Free to choose” is as critical as “social justice”. If we really believe in equity, we should bring those to the table whose destiny we choose to write.

We can agree that in a society with acceptable (does not have to be perfect) equality of opportunities for all citizens or youth, coerced choice is a contradiction.

You seem to have misread my comment about success - it was in quotes for a reason. To clarify, no specific definition of success is assumed. We can just assume that “success” is the ability to achieve one’s goals, whatever they are. If a student wants to not go to college and still have a “decent” (whatever that is by their definition), life, then that should be realisable. The problem in poor and unequal societies is that the range of options are not robust enough. The opportunities to choose a life of dignity and minimum “abundance” are not sufficient for an unacceptably high number of youth. So they struggle to conform.

The fairly large number of students in higher-ed from SC & ST backgrounds I have encountered were not dragged into it by force, but felt they had no option but to enter college because they had no alternatives open; at least so they believed. So the coercion is not in forcing them into college, but in not creating enough opportunities so that they can make truly free choices. Those opportunities are not going to drop from the sky. In many ways society has to create them. Some of those ways will be “negative” - by not destroying existing ways of life; example, through mining, deforestation or other forms of ecocide. or by making manual labour so “cheap”.

Sure, we agree. Justice and freedom are mutually constitutive. You cannot have one without the other.

Yes, we are converging to a position where we agree that justice and freedom are probably two sides of the same coin. Now what do we do when there are powerful forces that prevent justice and hence freedom? It’s as if a whole bunch of youth have their hands tied. Unless these forces are made less toxic, by creating REAL opportunities to choose, we cannot achieve any ‘freedom’.

I would argue that such real opportunities to choose come out of having reasonable health, nutrition, an education in thinking clearly (forget P-C-M-B and all its horrors), and protection from serious deprivation (by whatever social means). These do not exist in our society. So my SC-ST students came desperate for some way of breaking out of poverty. And they chose a college education.

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On the whole, I understand this is a very radical idea (not going to college). Given the state of society, college gives a path for motivated people from outside the formal sector to enter the formal economy. The other, more dangerous path (for people like us who are part of the formal economy) is a political revolution (reservations etc) and maybe even an armed revolution.

If the idea is not to disrupt the current social structures, then what you are saying makes sense. People us, who are already beneficiaries of the current system, have our “skin in the game” for such solutions → let’s educate the masses, give incentives for industries and consumers, get industrial jobs. This system is so deeply entrenched that we can’t see anything outside it.

Maybe this is what civilisation has come to, maybe this is end of history. Maybe we are old, exhasuted and out of ideas. My hope is in young people of all kinds of walks of life. I hope we listen to them and give them the power to choose. Tear down the formal structures of education, let people learn, express, create, collaborate on their own terms. Maybe the FOSS ecosystem is a tiny such model where the internet enables people to form dynamic spontaneous structures with minimum formal authority or power.

I have no idea how this scales, or even if it is desirable, but I do hope some people reading this make the bold choice to forge their own path. A lot of them will fail, but some will succeed, and maybe they will show us a new model.

Personally, I do see hope. Even the greatest of empires crumble (maybe this time its different?). Violence, technology, and the institutions that hold them are all sources of tremendous power and tyranny. So is the human desire to break them all.

Edit: Some excerpts from this brilliant essay by Alice Maz

society prefers to keep people in institutions, shifting them from bubble to bubble as necessary along certain well-defined pathways. the standard track of school to college to career, we’ve taken to just calling “the pipeline.” it is traditionally the most highly curated existence our society provides, promising to shield its participants from hardship and uncertainty as best it can in exchange for unwavering service

those who exist outside of institutions are ghosts. most discussion, whether compassionate or demonizing, of groups at the margins—homeless, neets, illegal immigrants, the “potentially” criminal and “untreated” insane—centers around how they may be sorted back into institutions and which ones they belong in

if I had kids, I would want them to be free. teach them, protect them from those that want to break them down and domesticate them. give them the tools they need to navigate the world. when they reach adolescence, they get a bicycle and the latitude to do as they please, to explore and learn on their own, knowing they can ask for any support they need. this is the kind of thing a lot of parents would say “you’ll understand once you have kids of your own” but I’ve heard enough variants on this theme now to hear the rhyme. they’re just admitting they gave up

Let’s get that out of the way. :slight_smile: Educating is fundamentally an exercise in optimism. Despite all that we have seen of humanity’s destructiveness, a thoughtful educator can engage with young people with hope and optimism that the student may go beyond the constraints of society and the education system itself and forge a new path. Despite “failures” the project must remain alive.

The question is this: what is the vision we can have of an education that is both disruptive and transformative, that “liberates” the person and shakes up society? There have been many experiments, all over the world. They are all valuable, even though they do not agree with each other at all. We have had thinkers like Dewey, Russell, Gandhi, Tagore, Aurobindo, Krishnamurti. There have been schools inspired by those approaches at various times and locations, too many to list. The entire spectrum from an “externally focused” to a radical ethos of contemplative, inner directed exploration. Some wanted a social revolution first. Others wanted an inner revolution.

Seen this way, the choice is not merely about whether to go to college or not. That seems to set the bar too low. It is about what kind of human being comes out of the education process and what is their relation to a world gone insane. And since we cannot, mercifully, make the revolution to order, the educator, in all humility, perseveres.

And here, I hesitate to push more words into the debate. Each of us must work out our action for ourselves.

I was reading through “A Clearer View” by Daniel Greenberg of Sudbury Valley - it is available as a free e-book here. Its a very accessible entry to why industrial education is an aberration to our natural way of life and how we can “restore” and “heal” our cultural and make it more humane and natural.

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In the context of Paul Graham writing a blog post that talks about how connections through universities are helpful for startup success: