Doubting College’s Worth Beyond Jobs and Earnings

Ashley Thorne

A new study released by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce declares that a college degree is still worth its cost. That’s because college graduates get more and better jobs than those with only a high school degree. As more and more people question the value of traditional forms of higher education, this study attempts to call the public out of its doubt and back to allegiance to the idea of college as the best path to the American dream. 

The study’s authors, however, overlook some important reasons why the value of the undergraduate degree has been called into question. 

The report, The College Advantage: Weathering the Academic Storm, finds that in the economic downturn, those with college degrees have had more success acquiring and maintaining work than those without college degrees. While the unemployment rate for recent college grads is 4.5 percent, unemployment rates for recent high school graduates are near 24 percent (the study cites the Current Population Survey). Underemployment rates show similar disparity: 

One out of seven new four-year college graduates was underemployed in May 2012. In comparison, nearly half of the new high school graduates were underemployed in 2012. 

College graduates also get higher salaries: “The average earnings of a Bachelor’s degree holder remain nearly twice as much as those of a worker with only a high school diploma.” A previous study by the Georgetown Center, The College Payoff, found that “workers with a Bachelor’s degree earned 84 percent more over a lifetime than high school graduates in 2009.” 

So college graduates are more likely to find jobs than their less educated peers, and are likely to be paid more. But does that mean that college is the best choice for almost everyone? 

What About Debt, Bad Education, and Credential Inflation? 

The authors of this study overlook three significant trends that have contributed to current public skepticism about whether a college degree is really an investment. 

1. Tuition prices have skyrocketed. So has student loan debt.

Nowhere in the report are student loans mentioned. According to a recent report by the Project on Student Debt, 2010 college seniors carried an average of $25,250 in debt, an increase of five percent from the previous year. If college graduates earn more but are paying off debt for many years, are they really better off? Some borrowers, such as drop-out Chelsea Grove, are so deep in debt they say it will be impossible to pay it off completely. Grove, who owes $70,000, told the New York Times, “I’ll be paying this forever.” 

Growing awareness of the problem of student debt has fueled Americans’ inclination to think twice about the true value of college. 

2. Students aren’t getting a solid educational foundation.

Many people are also realizing that college does not provide an educational bang for their buck. The curriculum is often a grab-bag of faculty members’ pet subjects, and most students graduate without acquiring a well-rounded and complete education. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa shed light on the problem through their finding in Academically Adrift that a third of students finish college without any intellectual gains. 

Employers, too, have noticed a decline in preparation among college graduates. A survey of over 400 American employers revealed “growing frustrations over the lack of skills they see in new workforce entrants.” 

Our nation is beginning to ask, “Are we paying too much for too little?” 

3. A college degree no longer signifies something special.  

For members of the baby boomer generation (and those that preceded them), a bachelor’s degree signified a real achievement, enough to guarantee a good job. Today, almost everyone has a bachelor’s degree, and a person needs at least a master’s degree to set himself apart. 

The push to send more and more students to college is what caused this credential inflation. In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “In this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job.” Yes, that diploma has lost value as high schools shuttle students through to graduation whether or not they have mastered basic subjects. Dramatically increasing enrollment in higher education is putting the college degree in the same position of insignificance. 

The high school diploma’s loss of value, therefore, does not signify the college’s diploma’s gain in value. 

College as Investment

While on average those with college degrees make more than those without degrees, that doesn’t mean that all those without degrees are making less. Some make more—and not just those Bill-Gates-type entrepreneurial geniuses, but also those who learn a lucrative occupation and do it well. 

The report conspicuously avoids referring to college as an “investment.” This is likely a strategic omission, as that word seems to be becoming a buzzword for “scam.” For-profit institutions have come under fire for drawing naïve students into deep debt under the assurance that their education is an investment in their future. (Not-for-profit institutions do the same thing but garner less criticism.) 

It used to be said that college graduates make a million dollars more over their lifetimes than those who don’t go to college. That idea, promoted by the College Board, is now widely discredited and has been abandoned. In 2009 Dr. Mark Schneider calculated that the premium is only about $279,893. There remains little agreement on such estimates. 

What They Really Mean

When Americans today ask, “Is college worth it?” they are not just asking whether they will earn more than most high school graduates. That they already know, and Georgetown’s report is not news. They are also asking about time sacrificed from work, setbacks to adulthood (delaying marriage, home ownership, starting a family, etc.) caused by debt, poor gains in knowledge, and insufficient training for the real world. Is going to college worth all that? 

For some, it isn’t. It is time our leaders accept that rather than fuel the insecure system that is rapidly losing Americans’ trust. While numbers on earnings and employment disparities are important to pay attention to, they don’t tell the whole story, and they lack the persuasive power that studies like these are trying to convey.

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