The Social Value of Higher Education

In her 1998 article, “Social Benefits of Education,” Nevzer Stacey (who was a senior research analyst at the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education) states that “for decades, the primary argument for justifying education has been driven by its direct economic effects. Yet it is widely perceived that the effects of education spread beyond direct economic effects to include noneconomic, or social, benefits for individuals and society at large. These benefits include a better way of taking care of ourselves and, consequently, creating a better society in which to live. Quantifying these social benefits is a difficult task, but analyzing them more systematically would improve not only our understanding of the full effects of education but also the informational basis for considering education policies.”[1]

Indeed, much of what we see written about the value of education is about the economic value of education (even on this very blog). This literature speaks largely of employment outcomes and network building and presents them as the most important factors of education. This is fair to an extent, since education costs are significant and keep rising, making employment after graduation a very real concern. As a society, though, this is short sighted. Education is valuable beyond merely your job and your bank account.

Society as a whole gains from higher education. Graduates generally have better health, a lower likelihood of incarceration, and a higher likelihood of engagement in civic activities. Each type of benefit leads to others as well, creating cascading benefits from higher education.

A counterpoint that might be made against these claims could be that these are merely the benefits of higher income derived from higher education, which is decreasingly the case, as pointed out by a new CIBC study. This is a fair criticism, and one that requires new data which is unavailable, because, as Stacey says, we as a society do not have much interest in measuring the social benefits of higher education.

I think I can still somewhat defend the social benefits of higher education from this claim, though. While it is true that the social value of higher education could be merely a manifestation of the economic benefits graduates receive, it is also true that higher education does much more than teach us jobs skills. On the contrary, even if your certificate, diploma, or degree is directly related to your work, most job skills are learned on the job. What your education gives you is base knowledge of perhaps a specific industry, but more generally the world as viewed through a specific lens (be it economic, political, business, science, or arts-minded). School teaches us how to be independent, critical, and precise thinkers; it teaches us the value of open-minded inquiry (generally speaking’we can all think of classmates who are exceptions to the rule). These intellectual skills are certainly a factor in the benefits of graduates. I also do not want to come across as only speaking about university education here. Every kind of post-secondary institution’from universities to career colleges to community colleges’inspires active, inquiring minds.

The question of cost inevitably emerges in this discussion. What I say may have some merit, but at the current cost, without an outcome that will provide income, higher education is not an option for many people. The social value of education may be high, but crushing debt still crushes regardless. However, the point of this blog is not to ruminate on the different possible ways to finance education. The point is simply that there are benefits of education beyond the economic sphere. We need to take those benefits seriously.


[1] Nevzer Stacey, “Social Benefits of Education,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 559, The Changing Educational Quality of the Workforce (Sep., 1998), pp. 54-63

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