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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.

Rob August 06, 2012 at 12:12 AM
I'm a 56-year-old baby boomer who truly "drank the Koolaid" about college all during my childhood. I worked for 29 years in publishing and corporate communications, neither of which is a terribly lucrative field. I lost my job 2.5 years ago, and have been semi-employed that long. I've come to resent that giant cohort of 25- to 35-year olds with names like Ryan and Kirsti who are just waiting to grab up all the available jobs. Companies also tend to worship at the altar of the newest-and-greatest, in any decade... It matters little that Ryan and Kirsti's prose reads like a really long text message. Companies moan and groan that "nobody knows how to write" and outsource the writing function entirely. Sour grapes? You bet. I married late and I also have a 10 year old and a 14 year old to support. What's more, I hardly think my observations are limited to my rather quirky niche in the occupational series. At times such as these I bemoan the fact that I didn't listen to my dad ("You should major in accounting! You can write your own meal ticket!) or pay more mind to the example of a set of four of my cousins. In that particular family, just one child made it to college and graduated - but the other three earn quite handsome livings at other pursuits. Almost weekly my wife nudges me in the direction of enrolling in yet another degree program (I have an MBA in addition to a bachelors). Perhaps if I'm more judicious this time a bonafide occupation will be waiting once I graduate.
QWERTY August 06, 2012 at 03:17 AM
Don't blame the economy, blame universities for their outrageous costs and government for allowing so much money to be borrowed. Universities continually throw this misguided logic that spending $150K on college is worth it when the average college-educated individual makes $1 million more than those with high school diplomas. By that logic, $600K for tuition is still a great deal! The problem is, universities don't allow students to pay tuition interest-free over the course of 50 years! Student loans are expected to be repaid over 10-20 years WITH interest. I'm continually amazed that these organizations receive millions if not billions in donations and still can't find ways to keep costs in reasonable order.
stevenmatthews August 06, 2012 at 06:24 AM
Although past recessions have been easier on college grads than high school grads, the needs of a ""21st century economy"" have magnified the stark difference between education level and joblessness that is why we need degree from High Speed Universities
Lani August 06, 2012 at 12:44 PM
This is one place I think we in the US have messed up a bit. We so abhor 'tracking' students in any way we have downgraded a Bachelor's degree to just another stepping stone to be earned. Do we 'need' it? Probably not really if we had other ways to train workers. Years ago I heard education experts speaking to ending high school at around age 16 and then tracking students to more vocational training, junior colleges or actual university prep - for true academic studies. This made sense to me then, and makes even more sense now. And parents need to be more open to allowing their children to NOT attend college immediately. Too many students enter college without really knowing what they want to do; what they hope to gain from college; or the motivation to work. That is why we continue to see students taking 5 or 6 or more years to earn an undergraduate degree (without being employed at the same time).
Alex August 06, 2012 at 04:37 PM
People largely discredit for profit schools because they have abysmal job placement figures and they spend ridiculously large amounts of money on marketing. How often do you hear a tv or radio ad for Uconn or Quinnipiac? Once in awhile sure, but Brandford Hall has an ad on the radio every 15 minutes. When you graduate from an accredited school, you get a degree in hand which is recognized nationally. For profit schools? Some pass out bachelors and associates degrees, but many programs are not up front about that you can graduate in 10 months...ect but you'll be getting a certificate and nothing else. Universities and Colleges are very expensive no doubt, but if you pick the right degree you will get a return on your education. These schools do not force students into Art history or any other worthless degree, that is students choosing these degrees out of laziness(not all degrees are of the same difficulty) or just naive thinking. For reference I graduated in 08 with a BS in Computer Science and roughly 25K in debt. I finished paying off my debt last month.
Christine E. August 06, 2012 at 05:40 PM
I think it's ridiculous how many useless classes you have to take just to obtain a degree in a non-related subject. You need to get a certain number of 'credits' to graduate, yet half of those credits are elective classes that almost always have nothing to do with the degree you're looking to get. The 9 required credits of health (I took a gym class), science lab (I took chemistry) and Psychology (I took Child Behavior) sure did wonders for my Bachelors in Political Science.
Alex August 06, 2012 at 06:38 PM
But Christine you wouldn't be such a well-rounded individual if your school didn't force you to take such wonderful and enriching classes! Ah, enough sarcasm; you're absolutely right, there is way too much fluff in schools which could be better spent having greater focus on your specific degree. I picked up a minor in psychology, which was very interesting, but yeah not very practical in terms of making money.
Christine E. August 06, 2012 at 07:04 PM
True, but some of that direction needs to start in High School. You have a bunch of kids who graduate High School and go into college 'undeclared', and really have no idea what direction they want to pursue. Then, they spend the first year of school trying to figure themselves out by taking fluff elective classes - which give them interest in degrees that have no future!
Rob August 07, 2012 at 12:04 PM
A postscript to my earlier comment: One thing that is totally missing in any discussion of college is the ever-rising cost. It seems that parents just willingly line up to pay tuition that goes up an average of 10 percent each year. For the past, oh, maybe, 25 years, all sorts of other organizations have held the line on expenses... but colleges continue to increase expenses because both parents and the government (source of both grant money and financial aid for students) pay the tab. I recall seeing some sort of guide published occasionally - perhaps it was in Forbes? - that published a list of the five best "college bargains" (best education for the money) versus the five worst. The guide only looked at private schools and there were huge discrepancies. Colleges such as Bard and Marist were slammed for having all sorts of expensive frills (I believe some school somewhere had an all-night cafeteria) whereas there were other schools that trimmed such nonsense and provided a good, solid education at something like half the cost. If we as parents exercised the same level of financial scrutiny that we do for purchasing something like a pair of shoes or a smartphone, perhaps higher education would pay attention.
QWERTY August 07, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Costs will NEVER come into check because politicians don't have the guts to go against the grain. Obviously education is beneficial to society as a whole but government is going to continue throw money at the situation regardless of its effectiveness. And most of this money goes towards "feel-good" stories which enhance a politicians public image. Reducing tuition for the average student doesn't make for good press releases. Securing "free-ride" grants for 15 underprivileged (or illegal) kids is a lot more appealing.
Anne August 07, 2012 at 04:21 PM
There's no question college is worth it - there are numerous studies that prove significant gaps in earnings, unemployment and the like. But the right college and financial commitment comes down to a couple of basics: the academic ability of the student, the choice of career path, and yes, the affordability. Everyone should be able to get an education, but not everyone is entitled to the best education that money can buy. Bottom line - if you're looking to pursue medicine, your choice of college matters - a lot. Ditto if you want Wall Street. But if you're looking for a career in elementary education, your job prospects won't differ substantially if you choose Southern CT vs NYU. If you want to be an accountant, you can get just as far with a degree from UCONN as you can from Villanova. So in the latter instances, if you can afford the private school, great. If you can't, going into debt is really foolish. I find many of the comments on this post very contradictory. The first commenter bemoaned that "Ryan and Kirsti" can't write, but then questions the wisdom of going to college. Several others question the value of taking liberal arts courses and seem to conclude that one should just be educated strictly in the trade or field that they intend to pursue. The fact is that writing, communication and critical thinking skills vital for success in most careers, and a a well-rounded education is even more important in college than it is in high school.
christine August 07, 2012 at 04:30 PM
I don't have a degree, and I haven't been able to find a full-time job in years, everything seems to require a degree. So I have two part-time jobs. My two oldest children have degrees and quickly found good jobs within a few months of graduating from college. Our third will be entering college shortly. I think what major you choose makes a big difference on your ability to find a job these days, but the right major is definitely worth it.
QWERTY August 07, 2012 at 04:44 PM
Communicating and writing skills form a basis. Women's studies, political science, art history, etc...are great for forming a well-rounded student but, imo, not at the cost of tuition. From my experience, there was too much fluff at college. I'd rather have learned more of my core subjects than learning about literature.
Alex August 07, 2012 at 05:06 PM
Writing, communication, and critical thinking are important skills for success. Important skills you should learn in High school as much of that is required to just get accepted into some schools. We're not saying you shouldn't be required to take English or Math, but for instance my school (Quinnipiac) required that incoming freshman took a course called QU101. It was essentially a, "You and your community and your role in it" course which we read a few essays, discussed in class what we read, did some small writing assignments and took some tests. My time could have been better spent elsewhere yet we were required to take it. By the time I graduated, they had 3 QU courses they all incoming students must take (up from 1). Tell me that's not fluff? And guess what, if you transferred to another school - those credits were worthless!
Christine E. August 07, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Anne, I had to choose between power walking and badminton to help satisfy a 'health' requirement, while pursuing a Social Sciences degree! What an easy $1,000 the school makes for every student that is forced to take those BS classes. Sure....I see the value of Reading and Writing, Mathematics, and communication skills. However, College is called "higher education". Reading, Writing, Mathematics...do we fail so miserably at teaching these skills to children throughout their schooling that they need to PAY to learn these skills once they've graduated?
dlsfetcu August 08, 2012 at 02:37 AM
The emphasis needs to be on getting employable skills, and away from getting a college education. Too many graduates complete their studies with skills that are of little employable value. I completed a Mathematics, Economics, and Mathematics degree, then a M.A. in Economic Policy Analysis and Teacher College education (I live in Ontario Canada, where its impossible to find even substitute work) I currently work at a call center for a cell phone company. I know tsunamis of individuals in my position; call centers, parking lot attendants, barristers at Star Bucks, the list never ends. The trades need to be re branded and glorified to encourage young naive students from shying away from the perceived inferior class status of a tradesman. Policy analysts need to seriously reconsider the types of courses they're willing to subsidize by the public. Let courses which aren't likely to leave grads with employable skills die off, it's heart breaking for too many who graduate and realize they are no more employable after university then when they finished high school. It does the public and the individual no service.
Lani August 09, 2012 at 02:27 PM
But this comment and a prior about Art History being useless are missing the fact that a college education is about being educated too. If you just want skills to do a certain career that should NOT be done via a university. That was my original point. There is definitely value to having an educated society but most attend college to 'get a job' and there could be other ways to do that. All without discrediting the value and need to have educated people too and a wide variety of areas of knowledge.
Christine E. August 09, 2012 at 03:11 PM
Apparently you're missing my point. Please explain to me how taking a REQUIRED health course (I got to choose between badminton and power walking) is useful education and NOT just a ploy to scam money out of students?
christine August 10, 2012 at 11:17 AM
Maybe we were fortunate, but two of my children recently graduated from private universities, one in-state. Neither were required to take anything remotely "fluffy". Perhaps individual colleges need to take a look at their curriculum, or at the very least parents should complain if a college is requiring classes such as Badminton.
Robert S August 18, 2012 at 08:14 PM
I went to the University of New Haven in 1982, planning for a B.S. in Computer Technology. It was very expensive then (so MUCH more today!) yet the teachers there were not even qualified to teach, they merely had to be experts in their field. I dropped out after 2 years. I was forced to take a course with its prerequisite course at the same time! I was literally doodling on my final Physics exam...yet I passed the course with a "D", as most of the class did, because almost everyone would have failed if they didn't curve it. This allowed us to continue to pay the University for education towards our goal while preventing transfer of grades to another university! Nice setup! I remember my English professor there apologized for some of the books he was using, admitting they had nothing really to do with the course. It was filled with agenda about existentialism. In 1986 I met an Iranian in a place of employment in Milford, CT who said he got his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Bridgeport. He added that nevertheless he basically knew "nothing". Okay, now that I have depressed you, the reader, here is GREAT news about having an excellent career without any college! http://www.citytowninfo.com/studies/best-careers-degree-not-required.html http://finance.yahoo.com/news/much-homemaker-worth-182358580.html
Rapture September 05, 2012 at 10:53 PM
Let it be known that there has also been a rise in remedial course enrollments. Those courses that don't count for any credits, but are needed before the ENG 101 or basic algebra etc. The students entering college are proving to be less successful in writing and reading, and basic skills that require more money spent on "fluff" courses before credits can even be earned. Now what can we do about that?

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