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Is College Worth It?

As the chorus of education bubble theorists grows louder, parents and kids still believe that a college education is the ticket to success. Has the value of a college degree diminished?

When I was a kid, things were pretty simple. Earn decent grades and SAT scores, play a sport or two and maybe an instrument, get a bachelor’s and you’ll be just fine. Promise!

What a kick in the shins it must be for our current crop of college graduates, who worked like hell to get into college, only to find that very few jobs exist for folks without experience. One recent report suggested that 85 percent—85 percent!—of college graduates move back in with their parents following graduation.

As if that’s not enough, the average student debt totals about $24,000—good luck paying that back without a job. And, by the way, only under the most extreme circumstances is student debt discharged through bankruptcy.

Parents, who often times foot the bill for four or more years of presumed intellectual pursuits, are becoming increasingly concerned about their child’s chosen course of study. Little Sally wants to be a chemical engineer? Fabulous! Johnny wants to major in liberal arts? Well … enjoy that post-grad camp counselor job.

The point is, people are questioning the once-unquestionable. Paypal founder Peter Thiel offered 24 elite current students $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue an entrepreneurship goal. Trade schools, which teach un-outsourceable skills, report that their student populations have risen significantly. Yet the flood of applications to our institutions of higher learning continues, costs keep rising, and no one seems to know if their kids are getting their money’s worth.

Quite frankly, I cannot imagine any of my kids not going to college, unless one expressed a strong desire to become a plumber, an electrician or the like. My husband and I place a very high premium on education. We also believe that the experience of living away from home teaches its own lessons.

Yet as my oldest begins his search—and I’m eyeballing the annual price tag, which seems to hover around $30 to $50K a year—I ask myself, how on earth are we going to afford this, and if he has to take a student loan, will he be able to pay it back?

I like to think that as the price of a product goes up, so does the quality of the product. By many estimates, average college tuition has risen well over 400 percent since 1982, far outpacing inflation in other areas. Residency costs have more than doubled. Is the average college degree 400 percent more valuable now than it was in 1982? Are the teachers 400 percent smarter, the opportunities 400 percent greater, the facilities 400 percent improved?

I am skeptical that the answer to any of these questions is a resounding yes.

So far, higher ed apologists haven’t really adequately explained why education isn’t in a bubble. They point out that the majority of college grads earn more than their non-college-educated counterparts (true). They say that a college degree has never been a sure-fire indicator of financial success (that’s debatable, based on the earnings data). And they claim that debt loads aren’t too high, that after grants and tax credits, real tuition has declined.

Yet the facts remain: prices go up every year. Average loan balances go up every year. Graduates and dropouts can’t find jobs. And most schools charge the same for expensive science degree programs as they do for less costly “soft” majors, even though science departments are much more expensive to operate.

Nevertheless, the wage gap between those who go, graduate and can find employment and those who don't go or who drop out is large and growing. Yet, I find myself wondering, where is the entrepreneurship skills training, where is the encouragement for those who really aren’t all that interested in traditional book learning?

We widely credit college for broadening horizons and subtly discredit un-snooty technical programs. Why? The last time I checked, you don’t call India when you need a plumber.

Lisa Bigelow August 02, 2012 at 02:15 PM
Thanks for reading and commenting. Fred, while I agree that many kids wind up at unsuitable schools, I disagree with your comment regarding "mental capacity." Many plumbers, hairdressers, etc OWN their own businesses and enjoy working with their hands. Last I checked, that takes common sense and sound financial management practices. Let me ask you something: have you ever soldered pipes, built shelves or cut hair? I've done all three and let me tell you these activities are a LOT harder than they look (my son can tell you about my disastrous haircutting attempts). And as Ed notes, higher education is a big business in our country -- a business populated by plenty of folks with zero "real world" experience or accountability requirements. While many students need to go to college -- doctors and lawyers, for example -- many would benefit from skill-specific training AND entrepreneurship training. Just sayin'. Thanks again! Lisa B.
NYtoCT August 02, 2012 at 02:27 PM
College is indeed big business. Ask any admissions officer whose job relies on getting the right number of enrolled students annually, and the financial aid officer whose aid packages students entice them into registering, and the athletic directors who generate millions in revenue not in the name of academic excellence. Colleges offer business the chance for pre-qualified employees thereby reducing the training involved in new hires. It is all cyclical. In the 1950s, only one-third of high school grads ever got college degrees. Thanks to the GI bill and effective marketing, that number has dramatically doubled so that a 4 year degree today is not worth much more than a h.s. degree was worth 50 years ago. Those are simply the realities of life today.
Fred August 02, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Absolutely.
Fred August 02, 2012 at 02:52 PM
Lisa, I was not trying to denigrate some with my 'mental capacity' comment. I know doctors who don't know a screwdriver from a hammer. Many of those same doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. could never set a toilet or caulk a soil pipe (not done anymore). Graduating college (mostly) guarantees an employer, that a person can learn new material at a given rate and has learned at least the basics of that career field. Your comment about "working with their hands," is spot on. And that was my point. People who work with their hands are just as smart but they do not have the need to process huge amounts of material (learning), and hence do not 'have' to go to college to be a total success. I think we agree, and I thank you for caring. By the way, I have owned a construction business and run wire, installed plumbing (and soldered), but you got me on the hair cutting. lol
Bill August 03, 2012 at 03:56 PM
Of course college is worth it, at least for the college. They make obscene amounts of money strangling the public with obscene admission fees.

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