The value of education

A rejection of the commodified college degree.


Lilah Kimble

Washington and Lee University was ranked 23rd on Forbes return on investment list. Photo by Lilah Kimble, ’23.

Will Pittman

According to the Washington and Lee University website, the standard cost of tuition for an undergraduate student is $80,300. To put that number into perspective, the average United States annual income in 2020 was $67,521. That means to just to attain the financial means to attend Washington and Lee for a year, the average American would have to work an entire year and 59 days of the next year, not spending a single cent of any of the money they have made.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that we go to an expensive and privileged school. But why? Is the cost worth it?

Some, no doubt, succumb to the “Golden Ticket” fallacy. A degree from Washington and Lee is the key to opening the door to a stable and financially fruitful life. It’s a simple recipe: a Washington and Lee diploma, decent grades, and a “useful” major (most traditionally business, econ, politics, or accounting). The believed product is professional success.

The cost, then, is justified because it boasts an excellent return on investment (ROI). Indeed, the last time Forbes magazine did an ROI ranking of colleges, Washington and Lee ranked 23rd, ahead of schools such as Columbia and Cornell. Spend big money, make big money.


But is the end goal of getting a college degree to make big money? If it is, then ROI is an incredibly important measurement. If it is not, which is the belief I hold, then ROI becomes an inadequate quantitative measure. The true value of a college degree can only be measured qualitatively.

The return on investment worth looking at is how a person goes into Washington and Lee and how they come out. The point of college, and any education for that matter, is primarily to learn how to learn. 

Does a Washington and Lee graduate challenge themselves whenever possible? Are they curious, taking in information and asking difficult questions? In other words, does the liberal arts education Washington and Lee advertises produce liberally-minded (the apolitical definition) students?

This piece isn’t concerned with answering that question. The concern is to change the way education is thought about by posing that question in the first place. Too often, perhaps especially at Washington and Lee, college education is thought of as a means to an end. 

This is a flawed mindset. We need to think about college education not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. It is through this mindset that open-mindedness flourishes and graduates challenge the status quo and reject complacency.

Speaking specifically about liberal arts institutions, if the education you receive doesn’t challenge you and your beliefs, and you leave college with the exact same personal constitution that you had going in, I am not sure that can be considered education at all. 

Great, maybe you now understand the political systems in Eastern Europe or can do linear regressions and know how to code using Python, but if you leave college without having been challenged, if your perspective on life is almost exactly the same as it was four years prior, then your college has failed you.

Make no mistake, this is a critique of mindsets harboured by students and parents, not Washington and Lee itself. The university’s mission statement claims it works to provide an education that “develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely.”

I don’t think these are empty words; the teachers and administration at Washington and Lee work hard to give students opportunities and classes that expose them to novel perspectives and ideas. But if the students have adopted the “means to an end” mindset, the only work they put into these classes is with the goal of getting a good grade and not in genuinely understanding and analyzing the material. 

The university has done its part, but the students must do theirs.

We will finish with a return to the figure of $80,300. Is it worth it? If this sum is paid for a student who looks at education as just another stepping stone in order to get to the shore, who smiles securely when they remember the ROI of Washington and Lee means they have a good chance at making big money, then the question is answered with a resounding no.

But if $80,300 is paid for a student to develop the ability to learn, the ability to see problems and solutions, and that student is able to graduate Washington and Lee with strong character, ready and desiring to do all they can to change the world for the better, then that answer is yes…now and always.