Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Is it still worth going to college?

The Oct. 7 war continues, but civilian life in Israel goes on, if only to show the nation’s resilience. An example: higher education.

The academic year in Israel started this week for several of Israel’s colleges (in another month or so for the universities). In this regard, a new question has arisen around the western world that has echoes in Israel too, especially given the success of its high-tech sector: does it pay anymore to get a BA degree?

There are two main reasons such a question is now being raised. First, in some countries (far less so in Israel), college tuition has skyrocketed. In the US, for example tuition, room, and board can reach $80,000 a year – for four years! That’s not only for elite private colleges but also in state colleges for out-of-state residents. Even so, in the past such an investment was worth it over a lifetime of higher income. However, a recent economics study has found that while “income” stays higher for college grads (the “college wage premium”), the debt overhang (monthly repayments with interest) negates any financial advantage the BA degree used to offer i.e., the “college wealth premium” is close to zero.

Second, with high-tech companies paying huge starting salaries for programmers and other digital mavens – no BA necessary! – why “waste” four years of one’s life going to college when you can start having a close to six-figure income out of the high school gate? Such a question might be especially relevant in Israel, where army service pushes college from the late teens (as elsewhere) to one’s early-to-mid 20’s (post IDF duty).

There are two general reasons why the answer to the title question above is a resounding “YES”! The first deals with the future job market. True, no one can predict what the world’s economy will look like precisely in a few decades. But the general trend seems clear, especially with the recent introduction of what has long been promised but only now is coming to fruition: high level artificial intelligence. This threatens low-tech workers (e.g., driverless cars) and information service professionals (Chat-GPT journalism etc.) alike. How would a college education help to overcome this unemployment tsunami? Permit me to illustrate by way of something personal that I am involved with these days.

Eighteen months ago, I was approached by the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot to help in establishing a new BA Communication program. I told them that I would be willing to leave my retirement (after 40 years at Bar-Ilan University) to do this – but on one condition: the program would have to emphasize Critical Thinking and Creative Thought. They agreed, and after the lengthy Council of Higher Education bureaucratic approval process, we started teaching the program this week.

The point here is that no matter what the disciplinary field, it is a given that much of the material learned will be factually obsolete within a decade or two (or even less!). One thing, however, will continue to serve the students well in their future career: the ability to think critically and creatively. Indeed, that is probably the only skill that will keep people ahead of AI and related technologies. Thus, all the economic analyses regarding the “college wealth premium” in the past will no longer be relevant when those who don’t go to college today will be unemployed tomorrow.

The second reason for going to college is related to the first, but from the opposite perspective. Let’s say that the AI “economic apocalypse” occurs in the future. What happens to a person when they become unemployed for life? Put another way, who is better prepared intellectually and psychologically to deal with a life of “non-work”: someone who has had only a rudimentary education (finished high school) or someone who has broadened their horizons and learned how to think creatively? In short, the right kind of college education can better prepare the graduate not only for the future workforce, but even more so for the future “non-workforce”!

And even if mass unemployment does not occur, the past 150 years have been marked by the steady decrease in lifetime work hours. Here’s an amazing, contemporary fact in OECD countries: leaving aside 8-9 hours of sleep and hygiene, from the ages of 21-65 the average individual has more than double as many leisure hours at their disposal compared to work hours: around 4,000 leisure hours a year, and a “mere” 1,800 hours working. And of course, once retired the leisure hours take over completely. What do we do with all that leisure? Yes, you could be a couch potato and watch TV eight hours a day, but that’s hardly fulfilling psychologically. Having some wider intellectual interests – from history to science and everything in between – initiated in college, is a boon to a life of satisfaction “post-work” (either weekends or permanent non-work).

Is there a fly in the ointment regarding college education? Yes. Many lecturers are still stuck in the “professional” mode of information transfer (even of a high order), but don’t attempt to develop their students general thinking skills beyond what’s needed to succeed (today) in that specific profession. Thus, higher education has to undergo a lot of creative thinking itself regarding its function in an economy and society far from what it used to be in the early modern era. Having said that, in countries like Israel and most of Europe where tuition is a pittance (in Israel: around $3,000 a year for public universities and colleges; $8,000-$10,000 for private colleges), going to college is figuratively a no-brainer. Either one does it – or ends up literally a no-brainer going towards the future.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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