As tuition costs rise, online education options improve, and the job market remains weak, the debate over whether college is worth it has never been more fierce.
But Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who attended Princeton and UC Berkeley, doesn't see any doubt that college is necessary.
He explained why in a recent panel at the New America Foundation also featuring foundation president Ann-Marie Slaughter and Buzzfeed President Jon Steinberg.
Schmidt argued that college plays a fundamental role in shaping better people, as well as boosting future earnings potential:
"So much of college is about not learning through education but [learning] how to not live at home, how to work with other people, going through the various rites of passage. I think it's going to be around for a very long time.
"I think you should set an expectation for your children to go to college. If you look at the economics of college, people with college educations are earning more than people without them. When we have these credit booms, which we love to have in America, we create real-estate booms, which create construction booms — it employs all of those people [without degrees]. I don't think you want to have a child that is subject to the next credit boom.
"The trend over the past 50 to 100 years has been increasing levels of advanced education and that has served us well. I would want my children — I have two daughters — to participate in that, and indeed they have. I just think it makes for a better adult. To me, the argument that Peter Thiel and others make that somehow in those years and the aggregation of debt that comes along with college make for lost years is just fundamentally wrong.
Schmidt also spoke in favor of the liberal arts approach:
"The fact of the matter is I think we want more educated people, and we want more people educated with liberal arts. At Google we take all of these nice pleasant 22-year-olds, we put them through a training program, and they're phenomenal employees after a training program."
As for job training, Schmidt said that companies should invest time in this process.
Google's orientation and training is extensive both for new employees and for those it's trying to groom as leaders. It has an entire function devoted to teaching its employees called GoogleEDU. The company applies the same sort of data intensive attitude and investment that it does in other aspects of hiring and management to constantly refine and improve how it does things.
That's not to say there aren't issues in education. There's still far too much in our educational system that's determined by history, habit, and entrenched interests, not what's best or most efficient, Schmidt said:
"What can change that? Measurement. It seems to me that over the next few years we're going to have 100 different kinds of approaches, and we're going to measure them because they're cloud-based.
"For example, I'm on the board of Khan Academy. They have a way, which they're now fiddling with, to look at the questions they give students to see which ones they got right or wrong, then figure out whether those questions in problem sets are the ones which are most predictive of actual learning."
Replacing college with online education is not the solution, Schmidt concluded. You can use technology to make college better, more efficient, and cheaper, but the experience remains enormously valuable.
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