Is College Worth It?


Is college worth it? The question almost seems ludicrous on its face.  The unemployment rate for people with a college degree is only 4.2% versus 9.1% for people without a college degree and 13.0% for people with less than a high school education. In this economy, that should be an open and shut case.

Yet in an uncertain world, many are questioning the value of college. There’s significant talk of a “higher education bubble.”  Skyrocketing tuition rates and the correspondingly high levels of student debt has driven a lot of this. Tuition has been rising at a much faster rate than inflation overall. Total student loan debt is now at $1 trillion. And unlike other forms of debt, student loans can’t be easily discharged in bankruptcy.

In many ways college finance does mirror the housing bubble. You’ve got an asset everyone believes will only go up in value, a multi-party transaction, a situation where the seller of the product (the college) gets their money up front and so is indifferent   to the student’s ability to repay, third parties  insured against loss by the federal government, a non-transparent market where each student is in effect charged a unique price, young and unsophisticated consumers who are told they “have to get” a college degree, financial products without any income requirements, and even worse the asset (a degree) doesn’t have a secondary market.

All of these factors create a situation ripe for exploitation and abuse. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see that the massive increases in tuition cost are heavily driven by the ability of students to get huge loans with few questions asked. And as with the housing crisis, outright fraud by educational institutions is likely more widespread than commonly believed.  The University of Illinois law school falsified its admissions data, for example, by inflating its students LSAT scores. The “cockroach theory” (if you see one, there’s probably a lot more you don’t see) suggests that this type of behavior is probably rampant.

Students and their parents are starting to wise up to the game, and the amount of student loan debt they think appropriate is plummeting. For example, in 2011 only 21% of people felt $20,000 in college debt was too much. Just a year later that percentage increased to 42%. In 2008, 81% of adults thought a college degree was a good investment. In 2012 that had dropped to 57%.  That’s a stunning decline in the number of people who think college is worthwhile, though it might suggest that the problem is less with the value of a degree itself than in how much is paid for it. But there are anecdotes to suggest that some feel college (especially graduate school) isn’t worth what it used to be.

Why is that? In part it is surely the economy. Though degreed adults as a whole have lower unemployment, youth unemployment and probably more important underemployment remains high for college grads. A shocking 53% of recent graduates are jobless or underemployed. This has fed through into popular culture, with student loan debt relief being part of the grab bag of demands made by the various “Occupy” movements.  When you graduate from college with huge, non-dischargeable debts, and you can’t find a job, particularly in your chosen field, you no doubt complain loudly about this to your friends.

But there’s also good reason to believe college is worth less today in many cases. Back in the 1980s and 90s the value of college was clear. Manufacturing was in decline. If you didn’t have a degree, you would probably struggle. In contrast, a college degree was like a golden ticket to success.

Today, in the age of globalization, it’s not so simple. Those without degrees are still hurting, but so are plenty of people with degrees. The emerging new separation is not between those with degrees and without, but those in jobs that are subject to international competition (tradeable) vs. those that aren’t (non-tradeable). High skill, white collar workers like computer programmers suddenly found themselves in competition with much lower paid people in places like India. This upended that entire job market.  Today you might be better off as an ironworker or welder whose job has to be done on site than as an accounting manager whose entire department can be sent to the Philippines. A college degree is no longer a guaranteed passport to prosperity.

Also, today’s technology driven world is changing so rapidly that skills learned in college can prove obsolete by graduation.  At the same time, open source frameworks and cloud computing have dropped the cost of starting a tech business to almost literally zero. In the dot com era, it took millions of dollars to buy servers and database licenses if you wanted to start a company. Today anybody can start a technology business in his bedroom.

So if you’ve got a good idea, why wait around for graduation to get started? The role models here are Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard but both got rich starting companies.  This dropping out of college to start companies is actively being encouraged by some folks like Peter Thiel, who is actually paying people to do it.

What these modern day Timothy Learys overlook is what Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg already had in common. Namely, they had already gotten in to Harvard. If you make it to Harvard, you already probably come from a privileged background. Thus you’ve got a family safety net in place if things go south. Those from working class backgrounds aren’t so lucky. Indeed, I’m struck that many suggesting that college isn’t the answer are presently an upper-middle class or better situations.

For a limited number of people, dropping out of or skipping school to start a business might make sense. But trend setters may manage to convince a significant numbers of kids from marginal backgrounds to forgo the college education ---perhaps in a needed skill -- that would provide necessary credentials and culturally acclimate them to the new economy world. Many of those kids don’t have a family cushion to fall back on.  For them, turn on, tune in, drop out is not the answer.

The real answer isn’t to skip education, but to be more judicious about the decisions being made. Racking up large amounts of debt probably isn’t the right answer. The marketing promises of especially for-profit colleges should be heavily discounted. For some, getting education through going into a skilled trade may be a good choice. College majors that don’t deliver skills in demand in the marketplace or that aren’t considered valuable credentials by employers ought to be scrutinized. But getting an education remains one of the single best decisions any person can make.

Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile.

Graduation photo by Bigstock.