The Value of a College Education

My last post responded to some queries from student about the value of a college education. Chris Crawford added some additional insights on the topic in the comments section. I thought they earned a guest post. He adds 4 additional benefits of college to the ones I mentioned.

1. Social
Young people are intensely social; you learn from your peers as well as your professors. The great benefit of prestigious colleges is not that they have better teachers, but that they have better students. Plop yourself down amongst a lot of geniuses and you’ll find yourself working harder and learning more. Plop down amongst a group of dummies and you’ll get A’s without learning much.

2. Autodidacts learn what they think they need to learn. This works only if you already have a pretty good idea of the range of human knowledge. But how do you get that range of knowledge to start with? How do you learn to study concepts that you don’t even know exist? College shocks you with ideas that never dawned on you. I remember arguing with my professor once and he hit me with an idea that had never occurred to me. I was so stunned that I stuttered, “I have to go think about this.” and walked away. I learned an immense amount in that one moment.

I’ve had lots of ideas crammed down my throat in college that later became fundamental to my understanding. The concept of vector fields, divergence, and curl really confused me at first, but once I grasped them, they opened up new vistas for me.

3. The Hard Parts
When walking up a hill on a slant, we tend to drift downward; it’s difficult to keep heading upward. In the same way, when we study a subject, we tend toward the easy stuff. But all too often, you need to tackle the ugly stuff (often mathematical) in order to properly grasp the concepts. There are a zillion people who follow pop science and can talk all day about black holes, the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars. But their knowledge of this stuff is shallow. If you don’t understand the four equations of stellar structure, you can’t understand how a star works, why it can go nova, or how it can collapse into a black hole. If you don’t understand special relativity, including all those equations for time dilation, spatial compression, etc, you just can’t understand how a black hole works. In the world of physics and astronomy, the math IS the material.

4. Sorry, you don’t get to take a test to prove yourself. A college degree is a certificate that gets you in the door. It doesn’t get you a job, it gets you an interview. No employer has the time to be fair; they must sort through dozens of applicants quickly to zero in on the handful that they can afford to interview. Sure, it’s not fair, but in the dog-eat-dog world of business, you cannot afford to be exact; you have to settle for “good enough”. And throughout life, that degree will continue to give people a quick-and-dirty assessment of your intelligence.

I quit college with a Master of Science in Physics. My advisor urged me to stay on and get a doctorate, but I had realized that the academic world was not for me. I was far too curious to commit myself to the narrow existence of an academic who is the world’s leading authority on color centers in barium crystals. I wanted to learn everything, and, equipped with the solid education I had already gotten, I went on to learn much about computers (which I can now program in many languages), history, psychology, evolution, Erasmus of Rotterdam, economics (ugh!), climate change, and linguistics. Surprisingly, I haven’t followed physics or astronomy; I’ve already gotten a solid grasp of those. My personal library consists of two or three thousand books, all of which I have read at least once. Yes, I sometimes go back to an old book and re-read it; what you get out of a book depends on how much you know when you read it. If you want to see the range of my studies, go check out my website at It has a surprising range of topics.

No, I never got the PhD, and I don’t regret it. I have learned so much more; at some point, breadth of education yields a greater intellectual benefit than depth of education.

But it has taken me over forty years to learn all this great stuff.

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