Growing Beyond Economic Returns: The Other Values of a Postsecondary Education

By: Manon Steel

What is postsecondary education for? Professor William Deresiewicz argues that the purpose of college is not to prepare yourself for the “real world,” pick a useful major, or to gain a return on investment, but to create a self. In other words, he opposes an exclusively economic purpose for higher education and makes space for a broader understanding for its impacts on human development.

Education at its core is the acquisition of knowledge and skills, which have value in external contexts, but is also valuable in and of itself. Expanding the mind, contemplating new ideas, communicating those ideas effectively and figuring out how to do something new are all valuable experiences worth investing in. Educational experience — and particularly the postsecondary educational experience — is more than academic learning. It is learning how to enter adulthood, or a new phase of adulthood, in a gradual and semi-structured environment where a person can experiment anew with their identity, their goals in life, and their role in society.

The pursuit and purpose of postsecondary education is often wrapped up in other contemporary debates: Am I made for school? Should I pursue college or skilled trades? Is college worth it? Debates whose terms often obscure the varied nature of postsecondary educational pathways and serve to track and inhibit opportunity more than open it up, especially for low-income students, students of color, and adult students. Their systematic exclusion from postsecondary experiences are a result of the framing of these debates as continued barriers to student success in the short-term, rather than as potential pathways to long-term sustainability.

Many people wonder whether they are made for school or not, but this dualistic mindset is based on several flawed assumptions among which are: 1) school can only look one way, 2) a person can be naturally disinclined to all learning, and 3) not everyone needs to learn or become educated. School and education can take variable forms. A student who struggles with the format of a traditional high school may thrive in more loosely structured college classes or they may find inspiration as an apprentice. Describing people as made or not made for school dismisses that everyone has different learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses as well as the fact that everyone needs basic skills to exist in modern society. On top of which, labeling individuals as educationally inclined or disinclined also carries a fixed notion of an individual’s skills and personality, when people change over time.

Those who portray traditional college education and skilled and technical education as opposing forms of knowledge acquisition do not realize both are key forms of postsecondary education; a technical education may lead to or compliment a traditional degree and vice versa, and many career and technical education programs take place on college campuses. This juxtaposition obscures the nature of college education and skilled and technical education as connected pathways toward skill development, personal growth, and career readiness. A conversation contemplating these forms of learning should be an evaluation of an individual’s career and lifestyle goals, the pros and cons of different fields and learning pedagogies, and the selection of the resources that will best suit each student on that postsecondary trajectory.

Students who are asked “is college worth it” are likely considering “is it worth taking out thousands of dollars in debt, to struggle through classes for four to six years, to maybe earn more money once I graduate if I am able to find and keep a job that pays enough”? Though multiple studies support the long-term positive effects of a college degree from a reputable college, there is a lot of uncertainty for students at the beginning of their educational journeys, facing steep real and opportunity costs. This uncertainty most acutely affects historically underrepresented students by heightening the psychological barriers to pursuing a postsecondary education. Addressing this will demand fundamental and systemic changes to conservations about short and long-term goals, postsecondary planning, financial literacy, and general life skills.

For students who are considering their options, or for adults who are in a place to help students consider their options, I highly recommend underscoring the fact that nearly all careers that provide a pathway for advancement and sustainable living require education and training beyond high school. For those weighing immediate jobs without educational requirements, it is critical to think through long-term questions about whether the opportunity might provide a sustainable wage for a family. Does this job offer opportunities for growth? If so, what are these opportunities? And finally, how susceptible is this job to economic downturns?

All postsecondary options have their pros and cons. It is critical to weigh these and determine what sacrifices someone is willing to make as well as what kinds of opportunities they are not willing to miss out on. No option will be perfect, but the chosen one should be the one best suited to their life goals. These decisions should not be limited by assumptions over what everyone else is doing or whether they are “made” for school. It is the duty of everyone who believes that each and every student should have financially stable and fulfilling careers to dismantle a system that overemphasizes the economics of a postsecondary education and heightens the barriers for participation for low-income students, students of color, and adult students.

Manon Steel is a Senior Associate, Michigan, at The Institute for College Access & Success.

Originally published at on March 28, 2023.



The Institute for College Access & Success

Source of research, design, & advocacy for student-centered public policies that promote affordability, accountability, and equity in higher ed.