Ken Koe ’45 won a full scholarship at Reed and pursued a stellar career in biochemistry, culminating in the discovery of sertraline--better known as Zoloft.
Ken Koe ’45 won a full scholarship at Reed and pursued a stellar career in biochemistry, culminating in the discovery of sertraline--better known as Zoloft.

What's the "Return on Investment" of a College Degree?

A lesson from the life of Ken Koe ’45.

By Chris Lydgate ’90 | December 1, 2015

He was a quiet, scrawny kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Grew up during the Depression. Bounced around the Pacific Northwest while his parents hunted for work before settling in Portland. Washed shirts in the family’s Chinatown laundry.

Money was tight; he sometimes went hungry. Walking to Lincoln High School, past the knots of hollow-eyed men who thronged the streets of downtown Portland, Ken Koe ’45 knew that for a guy like him, college was not a luxury. It was an escape hatch.

The night before his high school graduation, he heard the sound of the escape hatch opening—Reed College had granted him a full scholarship.

So in the fall of 1942, he became a day-dodger at Reed, embarking, as he would later say, on an “exhilarating intellectual journey.” He read Homer in Literature 11 and took freshman chemistry from Prof. Arthur Scott [chemistry 1923-79]. After class, he hopped on the Eastmoreland trolley back to Chinatown, waiting tables and washing dishes at Hung Far Low. Somehow he managed to graduate in just three years, writing his thesis with Prof. Fred Ayres [chemistry 1940-70].

Ken went on to get a PhD from Caltech and pursued a stellar career as a biochemist developing new drugs at Pfizer Research Laboratories, where he authored or coauthored 14 patents and 150 papers. In 1977, his curiosity nudged him into a line of inquiry that would ultimately lead to sertraline hydrochloride, better known as Zoloft—one of the most effective anti-depressants ever developed.

Many years later, Ken reflected on the remarkable chain of circumstances that led to the discovery. In particular, he singled out that moment in 1942 when Reed offered him a $250 scholarship as the “critical factor” that launched his career.

We hear a lot of questions these days about the “return on investment” of a college degree, typically framed in terms of your earning power five or ten years after graduation. It’s an important issue, but to my mind the debate has been hobbled by two major problems. First, the numbers are dodgy: there are severe limitations to the figures reported by the Department of Education and by websites such as Unfortunately, these figures are used as inputs for other ranking systems, such as the Brookings Institution and the Economist, rendering the whole batch of them unreliable. (Years ago, when I worked as a programmer, we had a phrase for this sort of thing: garbage in, garbage out.)

More important, the definition of “return” has been far too narrow. The point of getting an education at a place like Reed is not to fatten your wallet but to sharpen your mind. Not to prepare yourself for your first job, but for a future that has not yet been invented—and for the moment when you have the opportunity to make a difference. As Louis Pasteur said, "chance favors the prepared mind."

Ken died in October, but his life journey is a wonderful example of how the pursuit of knowledge is intrinsically valuable—not just because it changes the world, but also because it transforms the mind that seeks it, whether that mind belongs to a farm hand from The Dalles or a riot grrrl from Detroit or a quiet kid from Chinatown.

And if that’s not a good investment, I don’t know what is.