Is university worth it?

The Freakonomics podcast “Is college worth it?” was sadly centered on the economic returns of studying and on US colleges, but one student of economics and philosophy had this universally applicable answer:

If a bunch of people from the community sat in a park every day for three months straight and just exchanged books and had lectures, we’d learn much more than we had in three years here.

That’s a very good answer. Of course it depends on the university, the specific degree, the professor, but this student has a valid point.

Sure, you will know more after studying for three or four years than you knew before, but the real question is if you learned more than you would have learned on your own – or by other means – in the same time. I dare to say that most universities probably fail that test.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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15 Responses to Is university worth it?

  1. It depends on the university. I went to a “technical” college that emphasized the core curriculum (data processing and computers). We did have some English/writing classes, and some economics (but only as it related to computers and their effects on business, plus some basics), but we didn’t get lost on biology or the history of literature or anything “extraneous”. (I put that in quotes, because I think my knowledge in things outside the curriculum made me a better person). Had I attended a “traditional” university, I would have gotten a lot of classes in things that, frankly, wouldn’t have helped me get a job or earn more money. AND – I studied a lot of stuff in my free time both during and after college, without the horrendous cost of getting the knowledge from a university.
    It all depends on what you want to learn when, I guess. And what you want the school to do for you.

  2. JoV says:

    Great Ideas and great learnings are sparked by connecting the many dots of “structured” learning we have gone through in our lives. The person who wrote that quote is a student of economics and philosophy and has many years of learning in his belt. Try putting a high school student and a graduate school student and exchanged book and read everyday for the next 3 months. I bet you the student who has a higher education gain a lot more insights than the other student. Uni is worth it. Thanks for the thought.

  3. You are probably right, but most people lack this kind of motivation for self learning.For most of these not so motivated people like us, Universities are the answer.

  4. Liz says:

    Interesting article. I believe college isn’t just about what you learn in the books, but rather is teaching both how to ask as well as answer questions. Most people forget the details when a class ends, but the general knowledge they gained helps solve real world problems.

  5. You may have learned more without college, but for certain people college still might be worth it knowing that. Companies who hire are usually more likely to hire the guy who went to a good school and got a good degree than the guy who spent a year reading books and listening to lectures (even if the second guy learned more).

  6. This is an unfair comparison: people who meet regularly to discuss ideas for four years on their own are much more motivated than the average college student. So many students merely do the work to get the grade; learning often seems incidental.
    Anyone really motivated to learn will be able to learn much more in a (good) college than they would on their own, thanks to interacting with other motivated peers and with grad students and professors who love this stuff so much that they have devoted their lives to it (and are so knowledgeable about it that they are being paid to think about it!).

  7. List of X says:

    If a group of people from community got together for 3 months and talked about things like global warming, vaccines, GMOs and things like that, it’s possible that after 3 months they’d actually knew less (as in, less factual information) than before.

    • Good point!

      I was actually thinking about the discussion about global warming today, as I am in Colombia where I only meet people who are aware of climate change, of the disastrous impact of climate change and nobody would deny it. Apparently, when people live closer to floods and landslides, they are more open to it than people living in relative moderate climates in North America and Europe.

      Sadly, though, even some people who have gone to university say that vaccines are evil, although I would hope that the proportion is lower than among non-educated people.

  8. Silke Wahle says:

    Well, the point is when you want to really educate yourself, you also have to read the stuff, you do not like and reflect about it. An example: as a politologist, you should read Friedrich August von Hayek and Karl Marx, even if either one does not get along with your own world view.
    That is why I think, an institution like a university which has a broader curriculum which is not one-sided might have some importance.

    • Very good point! I think this already applies to high school, where I learnt a lot of things that I may not have been interested in by myself. It often proved useful later on.

    • Silke Wahle says:

      Yes, good schooling does that. It is the same with me. Good teachers in Latin (philosophical and grammatical basics), German and maths are important.

      Nonetheless, there are so many new areas to explore.

      I hate that I heard so late about Hannah Arendt. It was in international penalty law by a prosecutor of the Human Rights High Court in The Hague.
      Also, I hate that I learned about Carl Schmitt via blogs of American historians from Oxford University I read. That is so important that you should learn at school about it.

    • I remember that you recently wrote about the Armenian genocide and that you learnt about it from an Armenian colleague at university. I learnt about it in Jerusalem and was shocked that I never heard about it in school. But then, there is only so much time in school, sadly. – At least when I went to university, there was no bachelor system and people took the time to study around wildly, following all kinds of interests. That was nice.

  9. Thank you for ssharing

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