The 4 Lenses of College Value: Is Higher Education a Right?

Updated: Feb 25

This post is a special article, Lenses: In-Depth Analysis. Read and learn about this type of non-traditional article!


This article is a part of a series about higher education:

The 4 Lenses of College Value: Is Higher Education a Right?

The 4 Lenses of College Debt: Is Free College Worth It


Shifting Job Market

For decades, we have been shifting into a diverse world that is calling on the best in all of us to move forward and understand what it means to be a model citizen – what it means to be an American. And many in society have put considerable focus on education beyond high school.


With contrasting beliefs, values, and politics, a dynamic division splits down American society. This divide has affected many significant problems, and education is not an exception. However, as we look at the current job market, we notice 65% of current job openings require a college degree – 35% requiring a bachelor's or above and 30% requiring at least some college (1).


This has forced the multi-dimensional debate about where traditional academia is taking us as a whole. In an array of economic, political, and public concerns, determining college value isn't an easy task.


As we discovered in our previous post, The 4 Lenses of College Debt, we looked at a broad overview of what it means to make college free in the United States. Looking through various economic trends and social impacts, we only scratched the surface of what college means to the everyday citizen.


Looking at the late Sir Ken Robinson ideas that noted how we have been focusing on higher education. Even though he was a great advocate, he diverged from traditional thought regarding higher education.


As he coined it, we have a ‘college obsession,’ and throughout a career of talks and interviews, he expanded on the idea. Our relentless push for college in K-12 marginalizes a substantial number of students.


So, what direction are we supposed to head in? We have a job market with an increased demand for a college-educated workforce. We also have many students who are already suffering from a heavy burden on a college obsession.


Lens One: College as a Misuse of Resources

Before we look at what college should be, we must consider what it is.

As we look at the world from an economic standing, there has been a consistent trend. For generations, the college route has been the focus for social mobility. And since the turn of the 20th century, math and science have focused on developing a workforce that can compete in industry and war.


As of right now, the world only has a few narrow paths that work between socioeconomic classes. Therefore, this discussion often revolves around this one aspect of education and its ability to help us make money. As it has been drawn in terms of scarcity, it is often seen as the only way for underprivileged students to make it to the next rung in life – to be prosperous and live the American dream.


Due to its tried and true method over the past few generations, it has become the safe bet in building a life of wealth. Other avenues like the arts, vocational skills, entrepreneurship – the paths less traveled – are low on our list of priorities.


Since the 1950s, college education has shown an average return on investment of 15.2%. And this consistent return is coupled with the fact that citizens with undergraduate degrees have maintained unemployment, around half of those when compared to graduates with only high school diplomas (2).


What this has created is a feedback loop where there are dynamics of a self-fulfilling prophecy. A.) A focus on this type of education has fortified our position on it – B.) Encourages more students into this avenue – C.) Further causing us to focus on it as a priority. This cycle is briefly covered with the economic reframing in The 4 Lenses of College Debt.


We have to begin asking ourselves: Is prioritizing college education the answer, or are we covering up a larger problem in our economic structure as a nation?


There are individuals like Elon Musk, which have been contenders against the idea of traditional higher education. Noting college is a task that students can do "for fun," and that it is better at proving "you can do your chores, but it is not for learning."


And as we head into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are seeing a shift in the skills demanded by the professional world, a change that our school systems have yet to tend to.


Traditional academia is a deviation from the natural tendencies of human diversity. And as the corporate ladder remains seen as the only route to a safe future, it plays a role in our current economic condition. The lack of economic diversity puts a strain on our real economy while the financial markets move seamlessly.


As employees in non-prioritized job markets can testify, there can often be a gap between struggling and thriving with little in the middle. This makes it hard to create stable progress towards the American dream. And as the focus narrows to the 'top opportunities,' it produces a fiercely competitive world instead of having forward-moving collaboration.


A necessity for a resilient ecosystem is diversity – and our society is no different. If we continue to drive away students from their natural talents, we will continue to find it harder and harder to find economic stability as a nation.


Lens 2: The Diverse Student

To ensure the useful inclusion of marginalized students, we must first recognize that there is, in fact, a diverse set of student-types. From learning ability to teaching styles, we must find a way that helps all students learn to their extent of their potential.

The filing system of students in one direction is standard in our educational landscape today.


However, this is a product of our mindsets from a century ago as we turned towards the world wars. This industrialist mindset had one thing in focus, and that was to do several things, exceptionally:


  1. Be able to compete in the industrial revolution.

  2. Protect ourselves, through science and the military, on the global scale.

  3. Systemize schools to achieve the workforce needs of the time.

Through the recent developments of neuroscience and psychology, we are noticing a shift in this belief.


Schools like The Green School in Bali, have begun to focus on flexibility and allowing students with Specific Learning Disabilities (SpLDs) to grow into fullness as a human. As their ability to work with their student strengths, allowed them to close the gap between other students who were considered traditional.



Giving accessibility to students goes far beyond learning disabilities. Each student has their own preferences and learning paces, and a standardized environment is naturally unfitting for many.


The uniqueness of students begins with the overwhelming complexity of the brain and its ability to change. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who has spoken on the brain's potential, wrote in his most recent book, Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, "the experiences and goals of a person are always reflected in the brain's structure."


When we start to dissect this neural diversity, it's clear that we have to wonder how that changes how teachers teach. We begin to see that IQ is just a reductionist metric to define a student's mental abilities, and it ignores other forms of intelligence. And this metric, which standardized environments are formed around, misses many other assessments that can define student ability and potential.


This lasting brain change can cause a wide range of student preferences and needs that aren't being modeled in the classroom today.


With the addition of theories from psychologists like Howard Gardener, the mid-20th century has begun to recognize how we differentiate beyond this base.


Not only is there a diverse set of intelligence, but differences in how we structure their frameworks. An example of this is the broad-stroke difference between specialists and polymaths. And the contrast is seen in how they build their conceptual frameworks, wherein the latter is more likely to blend structures and concepts across disciplines.


Beyond the unique qualities of our internal environments, we are all meant to play a different role in this society. We should not have to completely discredit our current systems but rather add to what it means to be a good student. Using this singularity to crunch students into a mold makes our loyalty to a college route an unhealthy obsession.


Imagining how education can form alternative routes will be an essential part of ensuring all children can self-actualize. This ability may prove to be the guiding foundation of the pursuit of happiness – a north star of sustaining democracy.


Lens 3: The Right of Education

Educated citizens are an intricate part of a democracy. It allows citizens, young and old, to navigate healthy decisions of leadership and supplies a foundation for active citizenship.


The history of education has a lot to tell about what it means to modern-day civilization. From the grammar schools in England to the Boston Latin School – the first public school in the English speaking world – giving our youth the power of knowledge has been one of our priorities.


Diving into society's visceral obsession with college really begins here, at the importance of what it means to be educated. Much of the opposition only sees the economic instrumentality of higher education, but there is more to it. As Tristan McCowan painted in his essay, Is There a Universal Right to Higher Education? (2), education can help provide multiple benefits beyond economic prosperity:

  1. Intrinsic Value

  2. Positional Value

Critical thought and social mobility are two functions that help societies remain free. Without them, our weakness to authoritarian government and social stagnation pose a threat to the health of democracy. Here is where we begin to draw the importance of primary and secondary school. Why does the line stop there – should education stop being a public good beyond 12th grade?


"Higher education is a part of every human being's self-realization on account of its role in developing criticality." (3) If we look at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, we notice that self-actualization is at the top of the order. Though it isn't specifically a right, the ability to know oneself is a critical component of a citizen's sovereignty.


Not having the right to higher education also cuts individuals off from 65% of jobs in the economy – many of which are prestigious roles that can enable movement up the socioeconomic ladder.


If we brand higher education as a universal right to all citizens, this begins to pressure governments to develop the infrastructure needed to fulfill this right. Tearing down the economic barriers would be necessary, but sustaining the quality of education is equally so.


If we are to consider modern higher education as a right, we must be able to keep in mind that there is a baseline that we must maintain. For if we don't have the resources to produce quality education, it nullifies the benefit of wide accessibility.

We have seen countries like Italy and Argentina, with college completion rates at 45% and 24%, respectively, be unable to sustain higher education for the whole of their society (3). Finding the balance between mass availability and quality is an important one to keep.


And it is this balance that can best be achieved through Tomaševski's Four A's:

  1. Availability: Existence of sufficient places

  2. Accessibility: Non-discriminatory access to those places

  3. Acceptability: Meaningful and respectful curriculum

  4. Adaptability: Institutional flexibility following student needs.

Lens 4: Instrumentality as Political Awareness

The classroom is an incubator of thought. While helping students discover the world of their discipline, it is also helping them find themselves. A book's impact, a case study, a theory can all change the trajectory of where students go with their lives and what they believe. Especially in the fragile state of discovery, it is possible to be lead astray.


The pivotal roles that professors have in the classroom hold on college graduates' academic, political, and professional futures. And as creatures of bias, we have to look at how their beliefs can shape students, especially when it comes to social and political awareness.



Much of the interest in higher education comes from its potential case of being more than just a privilege. However, theory and reality can often oppose each other. Today, there is a partisan divide on how well higher education serves the public.


This poses as another defense against making the institution of higher education a universal right.


Currently, the American public is divided on their view of higher education. Many Republicans are questioning its effect on American society, often pointing to a robust political tilt on college campuses.


If this is the case, we must look at college campuses' political climate and see if they cultivate a healthy atmosphere of political dissent. Without this

, it may not be serving to make students aware of the full spectrum of thought, unable to give them the chance to be critical.


When multiplied to the whole, the institution of higher education can even direct our society's trajectory. With the significant implications on what we learn, we


must be mindful of where they're heading.


Possible Points of Cooperation

Cooperation can come in many ways, and it doesn't always have to be through direct action. Building a bridge between two divided plateaus is not an easy process, but here are some areas where we can begin the process.


For the most part, as a country, we recognize education as a Right, and it is only at the point at which this right cuts off that we disagree. We can begin to build a common foundation on what we should use to develop our children's futures.


We need to Understand the Direction of Higher Education as a society to make sure that we are in line with a healthier democracy. Giving rise to a curriculum that puts us on a trajectory to a unified future should be our primary focus. This can come in many ways and doesn't always have to involve the political spectrum. We can also look at college campuses' ability to Spread Political Awareness that can help us sustain healthy debate.


Though definitions of quality may be opposing, we can find common ground on the mere fact that we should have Quality Institutions that allow for a healthy return on student investment.


Finally, creating environments that work for the Diverse Student is the most important of all. This does not have to only include gender and racial diversity either. Moving into the future and following frameworks like the World Economic Forum's Education 4.0, we should create environments that allow all students to grow. We should focus on student independence through new pedagogies instead of just being 'manufactured' by the process of passive learning.


Road to Implementation

The road to implementation, like with any problem, will be a difficult one to follow. Intertwining opposing points of view is and will never be straightforward. But we have found some stops along the way.



Final Thoughts

In the hope of bringing you the whole problem, our job is not to decide for you, but to bring a wide range of information into focus. Though we firmly believe that addressing the value of education (it's our job to!), we would love to hear what you have to say no matter your standpoint.



Special Thanks!

Cover Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash


1. Recovery: Job Growth And Education Requirements Through 2020 - CEW Georgetown. (2020, May 7). CEW Georgetown. https://cew.georgetown.edu/cew-reports/recovery-job-growth-and-education-requirements-through-2020/#:~:text=By%20educational%20attainment%3A%2035%20percent,require%20education%20beyond%20high%20school.


2. Browne, C. (n.d.). The Fundamental Worth of Higher Education 1 Amy Gutmann. Retrieved February 2, 2021, from https://president.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/TheFundamentalWorthofEducation2015AmericalPhilosphicalSociety.pdf.


3. Tristan McCowan (2012) Is There A Universal Right To Higher Education?, British Journal of Educational Studies, 60:2, 111-128, DOI: 10.1080/00071005.2011.648605


4. Nussbaum, M. (1997) Cultivating Humanity: a Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press).


5. Parker, K. (2019, August 19). The Growing Partisan Divide in Views of Higher Education. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project; Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/the-growing-partisan-divide-in-views-of-higher-education/




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