The Value of Education

I flew into Vishakhapatnam, India, around 1 pm local time. My friend and a driver picked me up from the airport and shuttled me to the hotel. There I was, in a foreign land where I knew only a few phrases of the local dialect and was quite obviously a stranger. The first day was an intense attack on my senses. The traffic was chaotic and the smells were pungent. My body was in extreme pain from sitting still in an undersized chair for the past 20 hours. My stomach was already in knots, not only from the complete diet change but also from the lack of exercise and movement that I was accustomed to. So, I spent the remainder of the day sleeping and woke up later in the afternoon to my friend knocking on the door.

He came to visit and take me around the city. We decided to take a rickshaw-like taxi to the beach, which was approximately 10km away. These taxis are the ones with three wheels and an engine the size of a lawnmower. They are open to the smog filled air. When we arrived at the beach, it was littered with trash, urine, and trinket huts. The local government didn’t enforce any regulations, which meant that many of the ‘huts’ had become permanent structures that people held businesses out of.  Vishakhapatnam is an industrial city so, without enforced regulations, these businesses would dump waste into the ocean. Needless to say, this was not a beach for swimming.  Even the locals stayed out of the water. Instead, my friend and I decided to walk up and down the beach. This was the start of a very humbling experience.

I spent the remaining days in India partaking in two weddings, one of which I was in by accident. I was looking for another wedding and went into the wrong room, which was only the first of many language barrier mistakes. Then, I set about to experience all I could of the scenery and the native culture. I went to the beautiful mountains of the Araku Valley. I spent time with the locals at their favorite bars. I met a movie star. I road through many small villages where I definitely stood out as from another country and lifestyle. I was blown away because, unlike the negative sentiment I am used to hearing in the States, no matter where in India I was the same reverence for and desire towards education was ubiquitously expressed.

The locals valued education above any other aspect of their lives: friendships, businesses, and even family. Whether I was in the Araku Valley or in the forests of Kerala, I was told the struggles of the locals and how they would sacrifice anything for their children to obtain a quality education because, in their experience, it meant a greater quality of life. My driver in Kerala told me about his struggles with education and the unfortunate consequences of failing.  He wasn’t able to pass one of his classes, so was expelled. He told me education was free, and there was no shortage of exemplary schooling there. But, the demand for education in India is astronomically high so students only get one opportunity. Once expelled, students can pay for schooling, but most Indian citizens aren’t wealthy enough to afford this opportunity.

The locals who went to universities said engineers and doctors earned a fair enough income to provide for the family (supported by McKinsey Global Institute [1], “Unemployment rates for holders of degrees in the humanities are five times as high as for graduates in engineering and healthcare.”) and those occupations gave greater opportunity to move to other cities, if the family wanted to.

For those of us removed from such intense poverty, the average citizen in Vishakhapatnam would have to work their entire lifetime to purchase a new MacBook pro. This is why so many people there try to start businesses. They hope that the business will succeed and they will be able to maintain a higher standard of living.  Unfortunately, in Vishakhapatnam, there are so many businesses that even store owners struggle to provide for their families.

All of these discussions and experiences really put my own circumstances into perspective. If an Indian student fails out of college, they are essentially resigned to living in poverty. This person may attempt to start a business, but that is a risky and oftentimes unsuccessful venture. Additionally, most people don’t have the ability or money to start a business. This pervasion of hopelessness and poverty cycles through the society in many other ways as well. If a person has disabilities, they aren’t likely to be able to work. Healthcare is limited; it is common for people to get hit by cars then be unable to afford to go to the hospital. The people in Vishakhapatnam struggle to survive every day. For many of them, going to school and moving to the states is the only path to escape extreme poverty.

In the United States, the lack of a university education isn’t quite as limiting. There are plenty of jobs that people can do to earn a livable income. Dirty Jobs commonly shows these occupations. In America, there have been twice as many unfilled jobs as there are unemployed citizens. Conversely, in India, approximately 78% of households have no wage/salary earning members and 60.5% of people aged 15 years and older were able to work for all 12 months of the year 2013 [2]. Note: unemployment for the year was estimated to be ~5%. According to the McKinsey group, India is sustaining a wage gap between medium-skilled and low-skilled jobs. The gap is being generated by secondary schooling showing that India students who make it through university can attain a higher level of income. Interestingly enough, wages in sectors such as construction and mining have seen a growth of 1.5x. However, one can quickly find that this increase does not compensate workers enough to provide for a families expenses and injuries incurred due to the hazardous working conditions.

The purpose of this essay is to provide some perspective on our privilege in the United States. The troubles of India appear throughout most of the developing world. In the United States, we take our education for granted because of living conditions, working conditions, job availability, and education access allows us to. We don’t struggle to survive as most of the world has to. However, it is important to know that nearly half of the children in the world live in poverty [3]. Access to better-paying jobs and an education to fulfill those roles could easily reduce those poverty statistics and improve those people’s living conditions.  As a citizen of the United States, we are given unique circumstances which allow us to engage in education and make a living for ourselves. Rather than bemoaning the educational process, it is important to realize the immense opportunity each and every one of us is given.