Is college worth it for everyone?

Is college worth it for everyone? The college premium is increasing, but only for those who earn a degree. And not every degree is a ticket on the gravy train.

The college ladder is broken


College is supposed to be a ladder to the middle class, but it’s not working very well that way, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. After watching a new documentary, Ivory Tower. he’s worried about social mobility.

“The good news is that more and more kids are going to college,” said Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The bad news is that higher education is becoming more and more stratified.”

. . .  since 1994, 80 percent of the white young men and women in this country who have headed off to college have gone to schools ranked in the top 500 by Barron’s. But 75 percent of the black and Latino young men and women who have entered college over the same period have gone to two-year or open-admissions schools outside the top 500.

Graduation rates are low at unselective four-year colleges and community colleges.

High school is easy, but life is hard

High school is a bit easier than it used to be, but the rest of life is a lot harder, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. He’s been reading UCLA’s latest survey of college freshmen.

In 1966, only about 19 percent of high school students graduated with an A or A- average. By 2013, 53 percent of students graduated with that average.

The grades are higher even though, for many, the workload is lighter. As late as 1987, nearly half of high school students reported doing at least six hours of homework a week. By 2006, less than a third of all students reported doing that much work.

By the first year in college, students are worried about college costs and payoffs. They’re much more likely than earlier generations to see college as job training, writes Brooks.

In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important.

“Developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was a priority for 86 percent of first-year students in 1966. Now, less than half say that’s essential or very important, Brooks points out. “In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.”

Lots of stuff is affordable — but not college

Here’s why poor families can afford flat-screen TVs but can’t afford to pay for their children’s college education.

$10K degree isn’t impossible after all

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry challenged public universities to craft four-year degrees costing no more than $10,000, many said it was impossible. Three years later, 12 Texas universities have announced $10,000 bachelor’s degrees and the idea has spread to Florida, Oklahoma and Oregon.

Why college costs so much

What’s Behind America’s Soaring College Costs? Private college tuition tripled over the past 40 years in real dollars, writes  Ronan Keenan in The Atlantic. “In the last decade the increase was a staggering 25 percent.”

Federal student aid more than doubled from 2002 to 2012, he writes. That enabled colleges to raise tuition. Lenders bear no risk because student loans are guaranteed by the government.

Colleges have effectively been guaranteed an income stream and have used that certainty to partake in an arms race against each other by constructing lavish facilities and inflating administrative processes. The pursuit of education has turned into a vicious circle in which students need bigger loans to pay for higher costs, and colleges charge higher costs because students are getting bigger loans.

University presidents are paid lavishly, like CEOs of big companies.

Professors are teaching less. Only 43.6 percent of full-time faculty members spent nine hours or more teaching, according to a 2011 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute. That’s down from 63.4 percent in 1991. Hours spent preparing to teach also fell. 

The only way to control tuition costs is to reduce government support, writes Keenan. If student loans weren’t backed by the government, lenders would be reluctant to loan large amounts to humanities majors with low earnings prospects and to unprepared students who are unlikely to graduate.

Both colleges and employers must embrace three-year bachelors degrees; the traditional four years is an arbitrary number that just extends the time in education. Institutions can also reduce costs by adapting to the modern age and offer more online learning. But they will only do this is if the government limits the ability of students to pay the prevailing high tuition costs.

The current model enriches the universities while “graduates drown in debt,” Keenan concludes. 

His proposal would cut access to higher education — and it would force colleges to cut costs. Is it worth it?

Making college affordable

Are there better ways to pay for higher education? One proposal would guarantee every high school graduate two free years at a public college or university.

Duncan twists truth to hit for-profit colleges

Seventy-two percent of for-profit colleges’ career programs “produce graduates who on average earned less than high school dropouts,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a White House news conference. That earned
two “Pinocchios” for lying from the Washington Post’s fact-checker. Essentially, Duncan compares apples to oranges — with a few lemons thrown in — to make for-profit colleges look bad.

Here’s why career-minded students choose for-profit colleges over much cheaper community colleges.

The college penalty

What school will make you poorest? asks Jordan Weissmann on Slate. Every year, Payscale surveys college graduates to assess their earnings relative to their college costs. At almost two-dozen colleges, the average graduate’s “earning power won’t increase enough to justify the cost of tuition,” writes Weissmann. “To be blunt, these schools make students poorer.”

“Payscale doesn’t compare the alums of low-ranked colleges to demographically similar high school grads,” notes Weissmann. So colleges that enroll less-capable students will do worse at raising their earnings.

The Atlantic looks at colleges and majors that are the “biggest waste of money.” For example, “the self-reported earnings of art majors from Murray State are so low that after two decades, a typical high school grad will have out-earned them by nearly $200,000.”

Here are the degrees with the lowest 20-year net return, according to Payscale. Bold names are for in-state students. There are a lot of education degrees on the list.

Unless you’re attending a rigorous, high-prestige university, an arts degree is a risky bet, points out The Economist.  “Of the 153 arts degrees in the study, 46 generated a return on investment worse than plonking the money in 20-year treasury bills. Of those, 18 offered returns worse than zero.”

The Payscale study overstates the financial value of a college education, warns The Economist. It compares graduates’ “earnings to those of people who did not go to college—many of whom did not go because they were not clever enough to get in. Thus, some of the premium that graduates earn simply reflects the fact that they are, on average, more intelligent than non-graduates.”

New teachers owe $429 a month for loans

New teachers owe $429 a month in student loans on average, write Jill Barshay on Hechinger’s Education By The Numbers. That’s increased 66 percent in the last 10 years.
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Borrowing for graduate school accounts for as much as 40 percent of the $1 trillion in student debt, reports the New America Foundation.

Most grad school borrowers are pursuing degrees in less lucrative fields, such as teaching.

“The average graduate of a master’s in education degree finished with more than $50,000 in debt — $8,000 more than the debt of a typical MBA graduate,” writes Barshay.

“The report’s authors predict that these teachers and other indebted graduates won’t be able to earn enough money to afford to pay back their loans. That will leave taxpayers holding the bag, effectively subsidizing schools of education.”