Is College Worth the Cost?

The worse the economy gets, the more I’m seeing articles like this one asking whether today’s expensive college degrees are worth it. I suppose editors figure articles like this will grab the attention of those with degrees who can’t find work (misery loves company) and those without degrees who can’t find work (they’re thinking “See, a degree wouldn’t have helped!”)

The article is somewhat helpful in that the reporter tries to present both sides of the story. But there’s nothing there that you probably haven’t heard before, and some of the statistics used are a bit questionable. For example:

Studies indicate that college graduates are healthier, donate more blood, vote more often than other Americans and are more open-minded. They smoke less, exercise more and, a 2005 Pew study found, were 25 percent more likely than high school graduates to declare they were happy.

Note that it refers to college graduates. Last I heard, only half of college students actually graduate. So it makes sense that grads will be happier than non-grads, because many of the non-grads have the debt but not the sheepskin! Also, a healthy chunk of those who graduate come from families with above average income, which is where the likelihood of better health, less smoking and more exercise comes from, too. Other studies have shown that being happy is related to good health and having enough money. So duh.

Then there’s this factoid:

In 2007, Sandy Baum, a professor of economics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., studied the value of a degree for the College Board. ….Baum said that college was easily worth the cost. Plus the recession has laid bare another factor to consider:

“Even in this economy, the number of unemployed college graduates is half that of the unemployed who did not go to college,” she said.

That’s supposed to make college “easily worth the cost”? How so? As noted later in the article, less than 1/3 of American adults are college grads. That means more than 2/3 of American adults are not college grads. Since 1/3 is half of 2/3, it makes sense that the number of unemployed college grads would be half of the number of unemployed non-college grads. If college was “easily worth the cost,” a far smaller percentage of college grads would be unemployed. As it stands, the unemployment rate of the two groups is about the same. Hardly a point on the pro-college side.

OK, so I’m picking nits. I guess I’m just getting tired of the pro-college cheerleaders (note that Dr. Baum’s study was for the College Board) whistling in the dark. But bear with me while I share one more reason for going to college, from the article:

Another, even grimmer way to look at it: The poverty rate is 10.8 percent among high school grads. It is one-third less for those with bachelor’s degrees.

I got out my trusty calculator and learned that if this statement is true, then the poverty rate among college grads is 7.1%. I’m sorry, but 7.1% vs. 10.8% doesn’t seem like an earth-shattering difference to me.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that parents believed the hype about college being a necessity and sent their kids there in droves. Now we’ve got way more college grads than we need. The lousy economy makes the situation even worse.

What to do? I found some thought-provoking suggestions in the comments section of the article. Here are a few that made sense to me:

“I’m glad I never went to college until I was sure of what I wanted to do for a living instead of wasting my education by studying some major that was only somewhat interested in……I know so many who never liked the field they studied for.”

“Higher education in this country is a scam, it’s bloated, over-priced, and has sold us a bill of goods for the last 20 years. When a student pays $1,000 for a class at a state institution and has a grad student teach it (while the professor ‘conducts research’) that amounts to robbery. The entire system from 7th grade on up needs to be scrapped and re-designed.”

“There needs to be more emphasis on technical careers. Everyone is not college material and some people just don’t want to go to college. High school guidance counselors need to do a better job of telling kids about technical careers (cosmetology, mechanics, HVAC, etc.). A middle class society needs to have a balance of college educated as well as citizens who have skills in technical fields. I’m probably wishing for too much, though.”

“Simply having a degree doesn’t separate you from the pack anymore like it once did as more and more people are earning their BS. It’s simply supply and demand now. Get a degree in economics along with 200,000 other students, and what job exactly requires an economics degree? How many people with marketing or business degrees do we need?

Focus on a specific career like engineering, something in the medical field, accounting, etc. and you’ll be fine…….And if you want to be a teacher, don’t spend $200k getting the degree because it’ll never pay itself back… go to school somewhere more reasonable.”

What do you think?

13 thoughts on “Is College Worth the Cost?

  1. I realy enjoyed this, and find myself agreeing and question right alongside you.

    There is one problem, though –

    Becase there ARE so many college grads, it has become a baseline factor for employment in many fields and positions.

    My husband, unemployed for six months and now underemployed, cannot even APPLY for most of the jobs in his field because he cannot check that box on the online application.

    It’s a sad state, since the company loses out on a highy qualified and reliable family man with over two decades of experience… But it IS the state of things.

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  4. Tiffany, I’m sorry to hear that your husband is having trouble finding a decent job. My sister inquired into a franchise party business and was told she could advertise for workers with college degrees (for a min. wage job watching kids on inflatable amusements) just because there are so many college grads out there willing to take any kind of work. It’s a side effect of this crummy economy. Hope your dh finds something better soon!

    CW, thanks for the link. Seasonally adjusted, the numbers aren’t quite so far apart. Of course, these unemployment rates are for bachelor degrees and up, so they’re comparing people with advanced degrees, not just a BS or BA, to high school grads. Also, many employed college grads are actually underemployed (see response to Tiffany) and also carrying enormous college loan debt, so being an employed college grad isn’t necessarily an advantage in this economy. Finally, there are big geographic differences in the unemployment rate of college grads these days…..

    Laura @PH, you make a great point. The converse is also true, for me anyway; while I have a degree, I can’t credit it with any added happiness in my life. Going to college was a good experience for me, but my happiness comes from other things…..and people 🙂

    Thanks, everyone, for stopping by!

  5. Is college worth the cost? A loaded question. First you must specify the cost.
    A four year college education ranges up to 110 thousand dollars a year depending on the institution and who you talk to. Is it worth it if you can’t find work to pay off the tuition loans? Do you want debt for the rest of your life? The US is now in possession of the best educated population of hamburger flippers in the world. The need for a college education continues to rise while, the need for real intellectual thought and salary continue to decline. This a direct result of foreign and domestic economic policy such as outsourcing. Obtaining a decent job in today’s job market is not a function of education. As many experienced and highly educated people, who have lost their jobs, will tell you. Many have had to down train from good jobs to functions like retail. Join the reality of the US Job shortage.

  6. Joan, you’re preaching to the choir except for your statement that “The need for a college education continues to rise….” Not sure that goes with what you’re saying; maybe a typo?

    Anyway, check out my other blog and you’ll see evidence backing up what you say in your comment:

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Is college worth the money? Well, what is the purpose? My idea,as a math professor, is this: The purpose is to help students understand things. Understanding starts with knowing the basic principles of the subject, the logical consequences, ways to change or differ the principles,and empirical verifications. Professors who have goals other than understanding, such as looking for the ability to succeed in various tasks, are not fulfilling the objective as I see it. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better”. See also the new book, “Rational Thinking, Government Policies, Science, and Living”. Bottom line: If the professor does not stress understanding, the student may not buy what the professor is selling, and drop out. Again, the goal is not the need for college in order to succeed with a job, but understanding the world.

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Dr. Aranoff. I agree with you that the goal for the professor and student is for the student to develop understanding. The problem is that, at least in this country, college is marketed to parents and society at large as the path to success in the form of a good income. Maybe the economic changes we’re going through will bring college back to the place where people go there to learn, not to insure future earnings.

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