Value of an Education

Several years ago, I was talking with a guy about jobs and education.  He seemed a little disgusted at the fact that I had a good job with good pay simply because of some piece of paper that I bought for $100,000.  The piece of paper that he was referring to was my Bachelor of Engineering from the University of Michigan.  Nobody had ever questioned the meaning or value of that piece of paper before, so I was at a loss for words.

Since then, I have spent some time thinking about what that paper really means.  Throughout my career, I have worked with people who’ve had varying amounts of education.  The education itself is not a reliable measure of a person’s skills or quality.  The places where it shows up are a little less obvious.  Let me explain.

Degree Basics

There are a few obvious things that you get from any education:

  • Each school provides a list of recommended materials, designed to make you grow, mentally.  The materials are not just drawn from a hat.  They are carefully chosen as the optimal materials. (maximum bang for the buck)
  • A teacher lectures about the material, gives assignments (reading, exercises, maybe some labs/experiments).  The lecture is meant to augment the contents of the book and give insight and perspectives that might be more timely or subjective.  The teacher is also there to answer any questions that you might have or give guidance or correct any misunderstandings about the materials/topics.
  • You read a lot of books.  Many of them relate to your career, but many do not.  The ones that do not apply to your career might seem extraneous, but they are meant to exercise your mind and give you breadth of knowledge.  That way, you won’t go to a party, introduce yourself as a PHD and then sound like an idiot when you discuss politics.
  • You get tested to see if you actually read and understood the material.  This measures you and it measures the teacher.

Degree vs. No Degree

Now ask yourself the question: Could I get a quality education by simply reading the same books, doing the same experiments and talking with others who understand the material?

An honest answer would come back like this: “Yes, in theory, it is possible for me to read the same material on my own and gain an equal grasp, as if I had gone to a college or university.  However, I lack the time, discipline and materials (lab equipment) to do so.  If I get stuck, I’m not sure who I could ask to explain it to me.”

How many people do you know who have voluntarily opened a calculus or physics book and taught themselves these topics?  I can honestly say that I only know two.  I have no doubts that they actually read the books, cover-to-cover, but when I think about how much discipline and passion it would have taken to actually complete this, I can’t help but think that they could have gained a much greater depth of knowledge if they had taken a course at a college/university and applied the same passion and discipline.

Don’t get me wrong.  College/universities are no silver bullet.  There are plenty of people who take college classes with no passion for the topics and only seek to breeze through the courses and get a degree.  Two months after the final exam, they can’t tell you a single thing that they learned from a course.  So then, what is the value of taking these courses?

More Than Just a Degree

The lasting-things that you get from a college/university education are the following:

  1. You learn to learn.  The pattern from EVERY course is nearly the same: pick a book, set a schedule/pace, read, discuss, test.  After doing this for 16 years (HS + 4), you should be used to the process.  After you graduate, you should still be able to apply this process.
  2. Fundamentals.  Things like math, English, science, history (and a few others) are important things that you may need to use in your life.  They are the foundation of all other knowledge.  If you can’t use these basic skills effectively, it will be difficult to use the knowledge that is an extension from them (physics, psychology, engineering, chemistry, marketing, accounting, etc. all build on math, science and English)
  3. Finals week.  The week before finals, all of your assignments are due.  You get stressed-out.  You might not have enough time to do them all.  So, you will have to prioritize.  Some of your social life may have to go on hold for a week or two.  You might even need to pull an all-nighter.  All of these things will be crucial at some point in your career.  When finals week happens at work (2 times per year), some people will recognize it and buckle-down and handle it like a man and some people will whine about it and others will blow-it off like they don’t care.  You will see which ones are the “A students”.  It will all make sense when that happens.  You will find yourself wanting to be on the same team as the “A students” because you want an “A”  too and you don’t want to carry the slackers.  The “A students” don’t want to carry slackers either.  Make sense?
  4. Homework.  If you don’t do your homework, you can probably squeak-out a solid “B”, especially if you are naturally smart.  However, if you want an “A”, you will probably have to do some homework.  In your career, the same thing goes.  People who seem to succeed in life are not spending their evenings catching up on “Season 2 of Lost” or “Madmen”.  They are spending 2-8 hours per week reading some kind of books that improve their lives and their minds.  Here is a little secret: if you study too and work hard, you will earn an “A”.  (In case you aren’t clear, this is a metaphor for “pay raise” or “promotion”).
  5. You don’t make the rules.  The professor makes the rules (for 4 months).  You may be right and he might be wrong, but if you want a good grade, just play along till you get your final grade.  If you try to fight the system, some professors will be impressed by your moxy or your sharp wit, but probably not if you are a pain in the wazoo.  That one is pretty huge at work.  Figure out what the prof/boss wants from you and do it with a smile.

So, if you earn a degree from a college/university, those need to be your biggest take-aways.  If you don’t apply these to your career and your life (in general), then you will not be getting a good value from your education.  The reverse of this is: If you are not finding the success in your career that you are expecting, then take a good look at this list and see if there are any opportunities to apply these.

School of Life

After college, your life will consist of 4 core classes:

  • Work
  • Pay bills
  • Cook
  • Clean

You have some electives:

  • Kids
  • Exercise
  • Hobbies
  • Social clubs / friends / church
  • Leisure

Although these will make your schedule seem full, you have the option to study harder (read/learn) and perform each of these better.  As a kid, when you got home from school, your parents probably said “No TV till your homework is done”.   If you did your homework, you probably missed-out on some TV, but if you blew it off, you watched TV and your grades probably suffered.


Now, you are an adult and you are finished with school.  Wrong.  You are the teacher now.  You assign yourself the homework.  Is this going to be an easy class, or something of substance?  Are you doing all of your homework or are you blowing it off and watching TV?  Are you putting too much focus on any single class and the other classes are suffering?

So now you might see how school was a metaphor for your life.  This is when you apply what you learned in Algebra: it isn’t algebra itself.  It is the skills and determination that you needed to complete the course. That is what you really learned.  If you never do algebra again in your life, you will still have the experience of struggling with hard problems until you prevailed.  That is a PRICELESS experience, but only if you apply it elsewhere in your life.

For me, a degree in engineering didn’t start paying-off until I applied these things to my career.  Then I started applying other concepts that I learned in school (the scientific method, foundational engineering principals, research papers, public speaking skills, etc.).  Applying these to my life (finances, home maintenance, relationships, gardening, religion, cooking, exercise, romance, health/diet, grooming ) had a big impact too.  It all ties into those fundamental skills that I have mentioned.  Work hard, learn/study, maintain your balance and reap the benefits.

So, repeat after me: “no TV till you finish your homework”.  Get a good value from your education.  It’s not just a $100,000 piece of paper.

About Tim Golisch

I'm a geek. I do geeky things.
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