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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.

Melissa Y August 01, 2012 at 12:40 PM
Great article Lisa! I often wonder the same thing myself.."did I really need to go to college?" I am 35 and spent many years in college only to find myself now unemployed for over 3 years now and still have a hefty student loan debt. What I did prior to being unemployed, yes a degree probably helped in terms of getting the job and the salary that came with it but now I find myself now not working and cannot find a job even with that degree. I am highly in favor of trades which I really never hear about..it's always college, college, college. We need plumbers, chefs (like my husband), landscapers etc. I have no problem if my children want to enter the trades..they often pay much more that what a person earns or earned (like me) with a 4 year degree!
Lisa Bigelow August 01, 2012 at 12:55 PM
Thanks for reading, Melissa! I am sorry to hear that you are out of work. I wound up trying a totally new career two years ago -- thanks to Patch -- and surprised myself by loving it. Good luck with your search, and don't be afraid to employ some out of the box thinking. My background is in finance, and I looked for work for well over a year before an opportunity arose writing business descriptions for Norwalk Patch. Now I write full-time...it just goes to show, you never know! Good luck with your search! Lisa B.
Dr. Robin Appleby August 01, 2012 at 09:13 PM
On January 25, I wrote at my Patch blog site: "BHS students, Dont go into 'Debt Slavery' for your college education". I strongly advise soon to be college freshmen/women and their parents to read this. It talks about the struggles of a local friend, who has over $100,000 of student debt for a liberal arts degree, who has had a really hard time finding work and NONE of the jobs needed a college degree. Yet the monthly student debt payments are crushing, larger than many mortgages, and for many months the debt went unpaid, racking up huge penalties. Remember, no one has a gun to your head making you take out large student loans. Please dont try to walk away from your loans in a few years and try to dump them on the taxpayers. Be smart about college now. DONT ASSUME. If you have a passion for something, say social work.....check and see if there are any jobs in that field. Check and see what they PAY. If the job pays $ 30,000, dont take on $ 100,000 of student debt for that degree. It is O.K. to stay at home the first few years to save money. It is O.K. to go to college part time while you work. It is O.K. to take a semester or a year off and work...It is O.K. to follow your passion...(.I was a French Literature major)...just dont go into a lot of debt. If you want to do Photography or Dance or Journalism....go do it...just dont borrow a lot of money. The debt will make you a slave for years. Read about other's struggles with debt.
Dr. Robin Appleby August 01, 2012 at 09:35 PM
Please go to Studentloanjustice.org. Go to Victims. Put the cursor on the State of Maine. Read the story of Witheld. "I am thirty years old and my life is ruined. Who would want to marry someone with this mess. How can I have kids with this debt ? I will never own a home or a new car...I am shackled in the poverty I grew up with.....". Please take the time to read a few of the sad stories of the people struggling with student debt. Go to several of the states and read and feel what they are going through. You dont have to make their mistakes about assuming there will be jobs and assuming they will be able to make the payments on student debt. Dont think that you will be able to walk away from the debt (and dump it on the taxpayers) by declaring bankruptcy. Please do everything you can to avoid going into debt. Dont be a Debt Slave. Live free !

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