Is college worth it?

Nearly all parents want their kids to go to college, but Americans aren’t sure college is worth what it costs, a new survey finds.

College presidents complain high school graduates are less prepared for college and don’t study as much as in the past.  Most don’t think President Obama’s goal — making the U.S. first in the world in college graduates by 2020– will be achieved.

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Comments

  1. I think this is more just a simple reflection of the economy and uncertainty in the job market and less an indictment concerning costs. Americans have long shown that they’re unafraid of spending big when it appears as if their costs will translate into an investment.

  2. Especially interesting when you take a look at the study Edweek highlighted earlier in the week about the actual value of a bachelor’s degree: http://bit.ly/mlbiRV.

  3. The threat of income base inequality – research conducted by the Pell Institute. This brief discusses the practicality of receiving a college degree. http://www.pellinstitute.org/files/publications-Developing_2020_Vision_May_2011.pdf

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    I think this is more just a simple reflection of the economy and uncertainty in the job market and less an indictment concerning costs.

    That is probably a component, but at some point when the cost is increasing faster than inflation and the economy, the cost just won’t be worth it financially. There *HAS* to be some price at which a typical college education can’t be justified economically. We may not be there, but we are probably closer than we were 20 years ago.

  5. @Mark. I see your point, and I agree that there’s probably a tipping point of sorts. I still hold that there’s a difference between tuition and the cost of school. If the state reduces college funding by $x, and the school raises tuition by $x, there really hasn’t been an increase in the cost of college. There’s been an increase in the cost of tuition, but that’s a different thing. I understand that doesn’t matter much to the students, but it matters quite a bit in the big picture.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    When I was in college, the partying started–among those who would party–Friday evening.
    When my kids were in college–same college–it was Thursday evening or afternoon.
    When my father was in college, he tried to get early classes on Saturdays in the fall because he was on the football team.
    Got to mean something because it can’t mean nothing.

  7. Huh. When I was in college, the Library closed early Friday and Saturday nights and the cafeteria was closed Saturday night– because the school was attempting to FORCE us to go out and party.

    I had very many happy Saturday nights in my dorm room curled up with Sophocles…..

  8. College is worth it for those students who both need the credential AND are able to use the credential to get to the place they want to be (for economic reasons or other). That would describe many, but not all college students. The problem is that an increasing number of students are being sucked into college because they can see the need for the credential, but are unable to use that credential to get ahead financially to an extent that justifies the expense. These are students for whom the life of the mind is either not a factor, or a small factor, in the decision to attend college. They are the greater part of the BA holders who have jobs that don’t require a degree. They are also the greater part of the BA holders who have jobs that require a degree even though the job could easily be done by someone without a degree. They are also over-represented among the large proportion of students who enroll but do not graduate.

  9. CarolineSF says:

    Here’s my observation from my “mixed marriage” (well, mixed by the standards of past generations, anyway): In the middle-class WASP culture that’s my primary cultural influence, college is worth it if it translates into a clear career advantage. An advanced degree is looked on with some skepticism unless it’s a specific career requirement like a J.D. — otherwise it’s just a sign that someone is afraid to go out into the cold cruel world and make his way.

    In my husband’s Ashkenazi Jewish culture, education is a mitzvah, a blessing in and of itself. Get as much as you can. Until I got this, I was sort of shocked that my in-laws considered it perfectly fine for the younger generation to get their B.A. and just keep on going to school without a clear goal.

    It was this column where I first read about Andrew Ferguson’s book “Crazy U,” which I acquired and enjoyed (we are not political soulmates and I have some quibbles, but overall it’s a pretty wise book). He claims that the main benefit is that a college degree is a “marker” to the world that the individual had what it took — plus it’s the transition time for kids who aren’t really ready for the real world — what an indulgence the latter is, though.

    And now I see that for alumni of elite private colleges, it’s also a marker of either social class or the ability to navigate in the elite social class — especially for low-income students from unempowered cultures. It turns out that my family is practically trailer trash by the standards of the college my son attends (who knew?), so that has some meaning. It’s not what you think of as the purpose of college, though!

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    In my husband’s Ashkenazi Jewish culture, education is a mitzvah, a blessing in and of itself. Get as much as you can.

    Does your husband’s family see any limit of college debt where beyond this point the education seems like a bad thing? Would graduating with a PhD and 1M in debt be considered good? My guess is that the answer is, “no,” and that the limit they see just hasn’t been reached yet. If true, then I suspect that most people have a very similar model and just draw the “prudent” line at a different spot.

    Can you ask your husband or in-laws?

  11. Here is the fundamental problem with higher education, it costs too much and delivers too little. Since 1980, the cost of a 4 year degree has risen almost 500%, with many students earning degrees they may not be able to recoup their costs on.

    The mantra of ‘a person who has a bachelors degree will earn approximately 1 million dollars’ more than a person with a high school diploma is probably one of the most mis-stated quotes by educational and political pundits imaginable. The actual figure is approximately 450,000 dollars over a lifetime.

    There was a time 30 or so years ago when many jobs did not require a college degree, but long term on-the-job training. These days, many HR departments use the college degree as a measuring stick, but depending on the field (I work in IT), a person who has 10+ years of actual work experience and has moved up through the career path may be more valuable than a newly minted degree holder.

    In highly technical fields, the concepts that a student learns in 4 to 6 years might be obsolete (the basics and theory still applies), but I’ve learned far more outside of a classroom actually doing a job, than in the classroom (and I’ve also been an instructor at the college level).

    If our public education system hadn’t gone so far astray from what it was 30-50 years ago, perhaps students (who are serious about learning) could learn the necessary critical thinking and communication skills that so many employers seem to need these days (including a good work ethic).

    The future of higher education will be that students will go so far into debt that they may NEVER be able to pay off the loan obligation (the average person today who graduates with a bachelors degree is at least 23,000 in debt by the time they finish school).

  12. Mark Roulo says:

    The mantra of ‘a person who has a bachelors degree will earn approximately 1 million dollars’ more than a person with a high school diploma is probably one of the most mis-stated quotes by educational and political pundits imaginable. The actual figure is approximately 450,000 dollars over a lifetime.

    The 450,000 value is usually generated by adjusting for the “time value” of money. Basically, $1 today is worth more than $1 thirty years from now.

    Another big problem, though, is that these studies tend to lump together things like “Electrical Engineering degree from MIT” with “Liberal Studies degree from University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.” Two populations with these two degrees will have *VERY* different long term average incomes.

  13. Sean Mays says:

    Mark:

    They not only play around with the time value of money and ignore differences between colleges and majors, they also assume you’re graduating AND doing it in 4 years. 6 years to the BA in Irrelevant Studies at NoName U has a very different reality than 4 years to BS in Employable Field at Highly Regarded Institute. Fewer and fewer students are graduating in 4 years. I also suspect that the “wage premium” for a college grad has decreased from when that flimsy $1 million figure was developed; but haven’t checked into it lately.

  14. Mark Roulo says:

    Sean,

    And, to add even more to this, the studies don’t establish a *causal* relation. Maybe the kids who can graduate with a bachelor’s degree would have earned a large wage premium even without college. Because they are smarter and more diligent than average…

    Of course, my master plan still involves *MY* child getting a 4 -year degree in a moderately real major form a real university ( though not ivy) … 🙂

  15. CarolineSF says:

    Mark, I don’t think my husband’s family would go into debt for college, but they would forgo other things.

    Just for the record, I’m increasingly a debunker of the notion that all students must go to college or be branded a failure (along with their K-12 schools). That view is completely out of touch with reality.

    The original post here says:
    “College presidents complain high school graduates are less prepared for college and don’t study as much as in the past. ” — well, yeah, and they’re getting kids in college who wouldn’t have gone in the past, as part of the idiotic “all students must go to college” mantra.

    The original post also says: “Most don’t think President Obama’s goal — making the U.S. first in the world in college graduates by 2020– will be achieved.” Well, of course not, because in the U.S., college is a huge expense — the expense of a lifetime for many families, except for buying a home — while in other countries, the cost is modest. It would be akin to other countries’ giving families homes for a token amount, while families in this country had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a home — and then comparing homeownership rates. … Maybe there would be other reasons that the U.S. wouldn’t be first in the world in college graduates by 2020, but that would be confounded to such an extreme degree by the disparage financial burdens of college that it would be impossible to know.

  16. SuperSub says:

    And this is why my wife and I (Doctorate and Master’s, respectively), would be quite happy if our two children became mechanics, plumbers, or something similar. Heck, I toy with the idea of making a career switch.

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    Super.
    They can’t outsource plumbing.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    What is it with this thing?

    May have mentioned this before:
    Had a problem with my A/C some years ago. The local heating&A/C guy came out after supper. Found a box elder bug in a contact and removed it, then built a shield to prevent future occurrence.
    While I sat there on a hot evening conversing, he told me he and his daughter ride both western and dressage.
    We lived in a small town and you don’t have to go far to have enough land to run several (types of?) horses, which he did.

  19. The goal of making the US first in college graduates is a JOKE, since Bill Clinton with Goals 2000 (funded for almost 14 years without reaching a SINGLE stated goal) said that the US would achieve the following goals:

    (2) SCHOOL COMPLETION.–

    (A) By the year 2000, the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent. (didn’t happen)

    (B) The objectives for this goal are that–

    (i) the Nation must dramatically reduce its school dropout rate, and 75 percent of the students who do drop out will successfully complete a high school degree or its equivalent; and
    (ii) the gap in high school graduation rates between American students from minority backgrounds and their non-minority counterparts will be eliminated.

    Didn’t happen.

    The college completion rate for 4 year degrees has pretty much remained the same over the last 30 years (between 27-36 percent), so to listen to Obama claim a 90% completion rate is just STUPID. (gah)…

  20. CarolineSF says:

    We need to restore vocational/career/tech training. All students need the encouragement, opportunity and support to go to college, but that’s an entirely different thing from the notion that all students must go to college or they and their K-12 schools are cruelly and unjustly branded failures.

    In response to some — my 11th-grader has a friend/classmate whose family runs a successful ethnic food business — everyone reading this who’s in the Bay Area (not sure how wide their distribution area is) has likely purchased their products at the local Safeway/Lucky etc. The boy is smart and extremely artistically gifted but not that interested in actual school, and it’s assumed that he’ll step right into the family business and eventually take it over.

    All of his classmates’ parents are envious.

  21. I am still very much of the position that college is worth it. I think there are a lot of factors that go into the benefits of a college education – beyond just a diploma. That being said, it has become clear that families need to be presented with the economics of a college education before deciding on a particular school (or even whether to go to school). I think the numbers will typically justify the expense, but there are few opportunities to really see a cost-benefit analysis on each school. The new rules requiring colleges to provide a net cost calculator is a good start, but that is only part of the equation. Families need to have access to the post-college numbers as well (employment within six months of graduation, average salaries, etc.) to make a better decision on the value of the education. In addition, there are other non-tangible benefits of college. It may be hard to put those into an economic equation, but some people may place greater value on the exposure academically and socially that you get in college.

    All this is to say that we need to provide families with more (or better) information when they are deciding on college. Students cannot just focus on the top rankings.

  22. Robert Zemsky did a study some years back showing that there is a very substantial lifetime earnings premium for graduating from an elite (read very expensive) university, but almost entirely limited to those who go on to get a professional degree, which is much more common at those same schools. But it wasn’t clear how the causality played out.

  23. The correct way to phrase this question would be, “For whom is college “worth it? and under what circumstances? and at what price point, if future earnings is the creterion for whether or not it’s worth it?”

  24. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I have caught quite a bit of flack for repeatedly asserting to my colleagues that grad school is, and should be viewed as, a luxury good.

    Perhaps a liberal arts education is something similar.

  25. Quoting SFCaroline:

    We need to restore vocational/career/tech training. All students need the encouragement, opportunity and support to go to college, but that’s an entirely different thing from the notion that all students must go to college or they and their K-12 schools are cruelly and unjustly branded failures.

    I would agree, except for one problem. The type of training you are talking about is very expensive to implement today (esp. tech training) and with today’s budget issues, this is not going to happen (I attended a high school where we had industrial arts, autoshop, horticulture, etc), we had an area school which trained students for vocational arts (cullinary, etc).

    A main problem with a lot of career education is that it (like college prep) requires a SOLID knowledge of basics in reading, writing, and math (to include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, and percentages, without use of a calculator). The overuse of technology has ruined the problem solving ability of an entire generation of persons, and without a good grounding in the basics, a student is not going to succeed at career or college prep tracks.

  26. CarolineSF says:

    Sure, “a lot of career education … requires a solid knowledge of basic in reading, writing and math…” But frankly, many careers don’t require the kind of academic prep encompassed in, for example, completing all the UC A-G requirements in high school.

    Of course that kind of career prep would be very expensive to implement today, but how much does college cost? (To answer: My son’s college retails for $54+K/year including room and board. The college’s generous supporters enable us to receive adequate financial aid.)

    I think we need a total readjustment of our belief system in this area, and that starts with challenging the “every kid must go to college or be branded a failure” notion at every turn.

  27. In many cases, a two year AAS degree in a field like HVAC/Auto/Health Services/IT, etc will cost well under 10K (and probably less than that). There are excellent educational bargains to be had at community and junior colleges (get a associates and then transfer to a four year school), or get the associates and get some work exp. under your belt, then work on a bachelor’s degree.

  28. CarolineSF says:

    Two-year degrees are not considered “success” by the pontificators. I think this mostly comes from the corporate education reform folks, who share the characteristics of: 1) being entirely out of touch with real-life schools and students; and 2) looking for ways to set public schools up for failure, the better to promote privatization.

    Unfortunately, much of the media and our electeds have also bought into their views.

    Those folks, cloistered away in their think tanks and corporate suites (and places like this week’s New Schools Venture Reform conference in a Peninsula hotel), view anything except getting a 4-year college degree in 4 years (not more) as a dismal failure — a mark of shame both for the student and for the student’s K-12 schools.

  29. True, CarolineSF. My sample is small (30 nieces and neqhews between 24 and 50). But the AA degree holders are RN’s and HVAC people, and doing very well. The BA holders consist of 4 teachers (doing OK), a sound engineer ($12 per hour), a police officer (could have had the same job w/an associate’s degree), an IT guy (has never been able to get work in his field in 5 years, so joined the Navy), and a social worker (don’t ask).

  30. CarolineSF says:

    BB, I’M definitely not saying that a 2-year degree is a failure!! I’m saying that the corporate reformers and those in the media and political leadership who buy their script are saying so. I vigorously disagree with them.

  31. Roger Sweeny says:

    The original post also says: “Most don’t think President Obama’s goal — making the U.S. first in the world in college graduates by 2020– will be achieved.” Well, of course not, because in the U.S., college is a huge expense — the expense of a lifetime for many families, except for buying a home — while in other countries, the cost is modest. It would be akin to other countries’ giving families homes for a token amount, while families in this country had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a home — and then comparing homeownership rates. … Maybe there would be other reasons that the U.S. wouldn’t be first in the world in college graduates by 2020, but that would be confounded to such an extreme degree by the disparage financial burdens of college that it would be impossible to know.

    One of the things I liked about economics is that an economist would never say this. They would say that the cost is still there: someone still has to pay professors and heating oil providers and book publishers and cleaners and … It’s just that in Europe, this is more likely to be paid by taxpayers via the national government.

    Which leads to the interesting question: will European politicians be willing to spend the money that would be required to get so many people through 4 (or more) years of college. Since Europe has the same entitlement problem we have (each year, the ratio of “payers in” to “takers out” gets lower), that may not happen.

  32. Roger Sweeny says:

    CarolineSF,

    I completely agree that a 2-year degree is not a failure. But that awful thought comes from a lot more places than “corporate reformers” and their allies. In fact, I suspect that it is more common on the left (the modern academic left, not the old working class left) than it is on the right. I’ll bet a number of your Ashkenazi in-laws consider it failure. “What, he couldn’t get a real degree?”

  33. CarolineSF says:

    Yes, that’s true about my in-laws, Roger Sweeny — at least their cultural attitude would be to not consider a two-year degree a real education.

    But that’s different from the “every student must go to college or be branded a failure” attitude, really — even though my in-laws deeply value education, they still are realistic enough not to believe that everyone can or should go to college.

    Unfortunately (from my view), the corporate reform script isn’t being pushed just by the right. And I agree that there’s a faction coming from the progressive left who also push the “everyone must go to college” notion, out of something like gauzy magical thinking. That’s the kind of attitude that leads to a “D’oh!” moment if they ever have teens or have occasion to have close contact with teens.

  34. .Plenty of community college presidents say they know board members like those described in The Rogue Trustee The Elephant in the Room.The just released by the League for Innovation in the Community College was penned by Terry O Banion president emeritus of the group and current director of at Walden University. The work is based upon the anonymous comments of 59 community college presidents from 16 states who experienced significant conflicts with their governing bodies largely due to the influence of one troublemaking trustee.

  35. michael b says:

    A college student can be one who is completely competent academically is of high school age and taking college courses for credit. While the other student can be completely incompetent academically, lacking the basic skills to perform and which only makes that person adding another year of high school.For those who do not belong there are too many business and technical institutes of learning rather than accredited college program. TOO many college student and even college grads regretted they attempted to complete college. Too many people who passed up college made the right decision by looking at options and alternatives to college.