Editorial: Impossible to put real value on higher education

What is human value of a college degree?

It is a topic that Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum brought up before a home crowd some weeks ago and was the center of Greg Patterson's legislative interview this week to join the Arizona Board of Regents. Normally, the ABOR draws little notice from your average Arizonan, but this dialogue invokes philosophical questions about the purpose of our state universities.

Patterson had to defend his previous blogs that questioned the economic value of several university degree programs. In response, he noted the value of all courses of study. His argument was that some just pay off better than others, and students that chose careers poorly are out of work and others with valuable skills but no degree have jobs.

That was stated far better, and with more finesse, than Santorum's claim that students are prodded to go to college just so they can be brainwashed by liberal professors.

That gets to the heart of the human value of a university education. The question is whether universities are meant to open the door to personally satisfying occupations or only financially rewarding careers.

Our colleges have long tried to keep both doors ajar, expecting the students themselves to figure out the economic viability of what they want from life. It's tough. Yes, people with college degrees are out of work, but so are those who opted to go straight into building trades after high school.

The college experience, not just the degree earned but also the social knowledge and unrelated skills gained along the way, should never be undervalued. It is on the students to take advantage of what is available. To stay viable, it would be great if law students learned to change the oil in their cars and computer science students could also make a lamp.

A degree in political science or ancient Greek studies will not make millionaires. Nor will it eventually bring big bucks back to Arizona to fulfill taxpayer investment in college programs. But the human value of graduates fulfilled in their career paths is inestimable.

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