To ask for the value of higher education is to, at a fundamental level, inquire about the function of education as a whole– what do we expect to achieve by educating our citizens? To establish value, one must first demonstrate some unsatisfied need. An argument can be made that primary-school education is necessary to ensure that children are socialized and well-adjusted to society, but can we truly say the same about high school? It seem clear that most teenagers are capable of functioning in our society before they graduate, so the formative utility of secondary education seems more suspect–at least insofar as it pertains to creating a viable citizen. This issue only compounds when focus is shifted to higher education, as many individuals have eschewed college and lived perfectly respectable lives.
If the necessity of secondary or post-secondary education is found to be lacking, then value can only thereafter exist in that which is highly desirable–does higher education grant something that, while not indispensable, is still of great importance? To address this question, it is important to first establish the metric by which we can evaluate the answer’s quality. Most crucial seems to be the criterion of falsifiability: we must be able to know if the answer is incorrect, or else it is but hollow verbiage. Many claims made in favor of high education fall into the trap of being inherently unassailable, for they contain few concrete assertions or disputable facts. For instance, higher education is often touted as a means to sharpen critical thought and increase social awareness, but how can one falsify such an assertion? The term “critical thinking” is highly ambiguous and prone to partiality–such conditions make its evaluation difficult, if not impossible. Similarly, “social awareness” seem highly unquantifiable and vague while at the same time appearing as it were a deep and meaningful statement.
These obstacles are not insurmountable, but they can only be resolved if advocates of higher education are willing to make falsifiable claims in regards to the stated benefits of college. Vocational schools should have no issue doing this, as the goals of such institutions are congruent with statistical measures of employment. Liberal arts colleges are at a disadvantage in this regard, as they seem to stress the immaterial and personal aspect of education. Nevertheless, without some sort of metric by which graduates can be evaluated, the supposed benefits of liberal arts education are, at best, unsubstantiable–at worst they are non-existent. Higher education can only have value if it is achieving something important, and that which is unfalsifiable seems unimportant in the grand scheme of life.