By any measure, a good education is the surest path to a successful career and financial security. Yes, it’s true that countless people with university degrees are struggling in today’s depressed economy. But the latest employment figures again highlight the fact that those with minimal education have far more difficulty finding a job.
The unemployment rate for someone who did not complete high school is 12 percent. For those with just a high school diploma it is 8.8 percent. For people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher it is 4.1 percent.
So the case for investing in a college education is a no-brainer. But higher education costs are steadily rising. According to a USA Today report earlier this year, the average tuition at a four-year public university rose 15% between 2008 and 2010 fueled by state budget cuts. Latest data indicate that an annual budget including living costs at a public institution is about $21,447 while a moderate budget at a private college averages $42,224.
Thirty years ago, Pell Grants, which provide needs-based support to low-income undergraduates, covered 70 of four-year college cost; today they cover less than one third. At the very time we should be investing in education to enable more people to join the workforce and for America to remain competitive we are cutting back.
But investing in cognitive learning alone may not be enough. My eye was caught by a story in the New York Times on widespread and increasing cheating at some of the nation’s top high schools and universities. Studies show that “a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others.” According to Howard Garner, a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, “the ethical muscles have atrophied.” The same article references experts who say that parenting has shifted from “emphasizing obedience, honor and respect for authority to promoting children’s happiness and their ambitions for material success.”
A new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character is intriguing because the author, appropriately named Paul Tough, focuses on noncognitive skills as a key to success. “For some people, [the] path to college is so easy that they can get out into life and they've never really been challenged," he told National Public Radio's David Greene
"I think they get into their 20s and 30s and they really feel lost — they feel like they never had those character-building experiences as adolescents, as kids, that really make a difference when they get to adulthood."
Tough worries that our education system doesn't pay attention to noncognitive skills. “I think schools just aren't set up right now to try to develop things like grit, and perseverance and curiosity. ...” He worked with teenagers in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods and can attest to the importance of mentoring in helping young people succeed in school.
"Absolutely, cognitive skill and IQ make a big difference; vocabulary matters. But the scientists, the economists and neuroscientists and psychologists who I've been studying and writing about are really challenging the idea that IQ, that standardized test scores, that those are the most important things in a child's success. I think there's lots of evidence out there now that says that these other strengths, these character strengths, these noncognitive skills, are at least as important in a child's success and quite possibly more important."
The financial collapse in Wall Street was caused by a huge failure of moral character. If today’s high achieving students cheat in college they may also cheat in business. If they build ethical values while in school they will take those values into the workplace. Kids who grow up in tough neighborhoods and who develop character may succeed academically and in life, despite the odds.
Bottom line: we need to invest in quality education of the heart as well as the head.