Why do we attend college?

Attending college is an unusual decision. In the course of making this decision, we have forgone considerable opportunity costs–potential wages that we can earn, tuition costs, costs in time and energy, and so on. Why, then, should we take pains to pass the national exams and strive for the best education?

In economics terms, the theory of education as building up human capital comes into play in our discussion. If we see education as a form of investment which is comparable to stocks and bonds, we have to pay an upfront cost (or a series of upfront costs) to receive it and then it might generate higher returns for us in the future. Admittedly, there are some people who reap pleasure through pure learning and enriching themselves, but it is more realistic to suppose that people go after more profits and higher incomes.But the question gets a bit tricky when we try to evaluate the effectiveness of education in terms of raising our earning power. Nowadays, people with a college degree are not guaranteed with decent jobs. Or, to put it in another way, college graduates are not scarce resources any more.

In this case, then, it might be farfetching to say that college education plays a crucial role in increasing one’s earning power. Then why do people want to go to college?

Here we are coming closer to what economists call “the signaling theory of education”. This theory argues that the point of receiving education is to let yourself standout in the masses. The employers are likely to get a reasonable account of your ability by looking at how much education you have taken and how well you have done. While this is not the only way to figure out what the underlying capability of an individual is, this way is most often adopted in practice. Going to college, therefore, is necessary because you want to give a signal showing that you can be a good employee.

The above discussion of college education seems too practical. As a college student, I think the significance of college education goes far beyond earning you a higher pay. It is in the college that you have the opportunity to get in touch with a critical mass of researchers and your outstanding peers. Knowledge does spill over, both between you and professors and within peers. I have learned much more from my reading course in economic development this semester than from the formal lectures about development theories last semester. A smaller class setting allows us to interact more, put forward more questions, and to dig more into the particular topics of interest. Even if it’s in a big class with 200 students, you can still interact with the professor and other classmates by asking intelligent questions and giving comments. An active learner always benefits the most.

Moreover, college education does not only happen in class. Various kinds of extra curriculum activies enable students to explore their own interests and know more about the society. If you are eager to learn and you are hardworking enough, you will be able to develop a broader mindset and build a more charming self throught the process.

My housemom once said to me: “You Asians work so hard!” I smiled, and said: “Because there is just so much to learn.” The world is fascinating, and college education is just a potential means for us to better explore the world.


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