YES–College Is STILL Worth It!

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 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 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 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.

This entry was posted in Umwelt Utahpia and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to YES–College Is STILL Worth It!

  1. Steven Meyer says:

    You write:

    “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%”

    Do comparisons like this truly make your case?

    On average college graduates are more intelligent than high school graduates. They also tend to be drawn from a more privileged segment of society and to have parents who value learning. Might these factors, rather than their degrees, explain at least some of the differences in life outcomes between the two groups?

    Leaving aside STEM majors and careers in accountancy, law and medicine for which a professional qualification is required, I think there is good reason to question the financial benefits of a degree from a second or third tier school.

    I’d also like to draw your attention to “The Campus Tsunami” an op-ed piece by David Brooks in the New York Times, 3 May 2012. (Subscription required)

    In education, as everywhere else, we are going to see a substitution of capital for labour.

  2. Ken Kilgore (Umwelt Utahpia) says:

    Steven: thanks for your comments. I agree that a child’s home environment and attitude towards education has a huge influence on the future prospects for the child, and parents who’re educated probably tend to have kids who’re educated. However, the stats I cite are about the earning power of graduates of college vs. graduates of high school, not about the earning power of the privileged vs non-privileged. Different statistics would be needed to demonstrate such a correlation; otherwise, it’s just speculation. Besides, my own experiences (albeit anecdotal) tend to confirm that it’s the degree that makes the most difference in raising one’s earning power.

    My mother was a daughter of privilege in her native Japan and she valued education her whole life, but she only has a jr. high school diploma (even today, high school is not compulsory in Japan) so she was a hotel housekeeper in the U.S. for 20 years. My high school-educated father retired from the Navy before the age of 40 and earned a decent living as a civilian till his defense contractor terminated his contract. Using the G.I. bill, my dad finally earned his bachelor’s (in Communications) in his late 50s. Two years later, he got a job as a Purchasing Manager at a telecom manufacturer, earning twice more than any job he’s had previously. The degree didn’t provide my dad with any new job skills or credentials from a brand-name school–it just gave him the entry pass to apply for a position that he couldn’t before with only a high school diploma.

    I was born in a lower middle-class family and was the first in both my parents’ families to get a bachelor’s. My brother was the second, and my dad was the third. We all believe it was our college degrees–not our environment nor our respective parents’ examples–that elevated our economic fortunes and moved us into the middle – upper middle class.

    David Brooks’s “New York Times” op-ed piece you suggested describes an interesting situation in the evolution of education delivery. Since many college courses–especially in the STEM fields–require a lab component, I wonder how the online industry will adapt to accomodate this requirement? As a biology major, the on-site labs were crucial for me in developing hands-on knowledge of the course materials: I synthesized cholesterol in Organic Chemistry; cloned frog embryos in Reproductive Biology; created photomicrographs of rat tissues with an electron microscope in Cell Biology), But some non-STEM courses at my college required “labs” and collaborative seminars as well, including art (experimenting with various raw materials in an art studio), history (researching primary source materials and ancient manuscripts in a library with assistant professors), and music theory (playing with various instruments in a music hall to understand their sound mechanics). Until online courses can offer similar laboratory experiences, my guess is that they will continue to be just another (much needed) way to deliver college-level instruction but not a replacement for a university education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *