With today’s high unemployment rates and increasing student loan debt levels, many Americans question whether a college education is worth the cost. An article written by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol at FoxNews.com in May 2013 answers the question “Is College Worth It?” with an unenthusiastic “It depends”. The authors give several reasons for their ambivalent response:
- Student debt is growing, as well as defaults on student loans
- The cost of a college education is expensive and increasing
- There is high unemployment among new college graduates
- A recent study found “only 45 percent of college graduates made substantial gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills in their first two years of school”
- Many traditionally challenging courses have been replaced with less rigorous “novelty” instruction on pop culture
- College campuses are mostly politically liberal havens “rife with binge drinking, illegal drug use and the degrading ‘hook-up’ culture”
The authors point out that a student’s choice of major can greatly affect his or her financial future, noting that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors are paid more and have better employment rates compared to other majors, like psychology, English or political science, as well as which school the student attends, since brand-name schools may offer more opportunities than other colleges.
The article ends by highlighting the shortage of workers in jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree (but do require more than a high school diploma), such as nurses, welders, electricians, air traffic controllers, IT technicians, and plumbers.
The points in the article are the usual ones made when arguing that college degrees are no longer worth the cost of obtaining them. Typically, such arguments present just part of the picture by ignoring the alternative option of NOT getting a college education. The arguments against a college education usually depict how some graduates are struggling economically and fail to recognize that those college graduates are competing for jobs and pay not just among themselves but also against all other job seekers, including those with only a high school diploma who are struggling even more.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that holders of a bachelor’s degree and higher who were 25 years old and over in 2012 had an unemployment rate of 4.0%, while high school graduates without any college had an unemployment rate of 8.3%. And a Forbes.com article cites U.S. Census Bureau statistics showing that in 2011, college graduates made 82% more than those with high school diplomas. So even if unemployment is increasing and earning power is decreasing for college graduates, the figures are even worse for high school-only graduates.
The other points made by the FoxNews.com article should also be compared to the alternatives for a more complete picture. Student debt and loan defaults are growing, but how big a problem is this in the larger context of increasing mortgage defaults and credit card debt of all Americans? Is it possible that, compared to other types of debt, student loans still make better financial sense? And referring back to the article, if 45% of college juniors showed little improvement in critical thinking, reasoning and writing skills, then 55%, or the majority, DID show improvements. Did the majority of high school-only graduates likewise show advances in such critical skills two years after graduation?
Arguments about lax courses and liberal college campuses are more about a student’s lifestyle preference than whether college is worth the cost—college campuses are not the only places where high school graduates may encounter excessive drinking, illegal drugs, and liberal attitudes about sex. And while growth in the number of available skilled labor jobs that do not require a college degree (and cannot be easily outsourced to overseas workers) is a positive development, domestic workers increasingly find such jobs offer only short-term employment as automation, industry consolidation, and technological obsolescence take their toll.
Getting a college education is certainly not the only way to achieve personal satisfaction, gainful employment, and professional or financial success, and a college degree is no guarantee of future success. The cost of a bachelor’s degree is indeed great enough that careful consideration must be made about college being the right choice for a particular individual. But be sure your research looks at the entire picture and at whether the alternative of NOT getting a college education is really worth it.