The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland asked Alice and me to contribute an opinion article for a series it was running on the value of a college education. Also featured were the views of Michael Schwartz, the former president of both Cleveland State and Kent State universities, and Richard Vedders, an emeritus professor of economics at Ohio University who now runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C. Schwartz said college is about more than just a paycheck and helps people find “the real meaning in life’s journey.” Vedders believes the nation overinvests in four-year college degrees and said only about one-third of graduating seniors should go on to college, referring to the ones whose high school records indicate they have the best chance to succeed.
This “Is College Worth It?” debate that is raging this year reminds me a little of those classic “tastes great, less filling” beer commercials. Schwartz is right about college imparting benefits beyond just economic ones, and Vedders is right about college not profiting all students. This has been the case for quite some time.
The more helpful question is, What can students DO to make their educational investment pay off for them?
You can visit the Plain Dealer’s website to read the entire series. The text of our commentary is below:
“Is college worth it? With jobs drying up and Mom and Dad raiding their
retirement fund to pay Junior’s tuition, it’s not surprising that the value of a
college degree would be called into question. For good reason: Traditional ways
of thinking about the college investment don’t pay off for large numbers of
students and their families.
Here’s a typical college choice scenario: Junior finds a pricey college that
he absolutely must attend because of its prestige, its sports traditions, its
pretty co-eds or its party atmosphere. Mom and Dad pay as much as they can, and
Junior borrows enough to pay the rest (sometimes enough to buy a small house).
Upon graduation, Junior’s degree in English literature lands him a job in fast
food and a starting salary nowhere near what he needs to repay his loans.
But what if Junior had opted for a less expensive college? What if he had
chosen a different degree? Sure, he would have to give up some of what he
wanted, but such trade-offs might save him from being in need of a good job and
debt relief later in life.
Here’s the hard truth: For far too many students, college isn’t “worth it”
largely because of the choices they make about which college to attend, what
degree to pursue and how to invest time spent on campus. Instead, they need to
think strategically about how to improve their marketability and avoid paying
more than their degree is worth.
Colleges and universities are basically in the business of knowledge
creation. For a fee (often in the tens of thousands of dollars), they will share
that knowledge with others. While true academics see all knowledge as valuable,
the marketplace has a different point of view. What universities don’t like to
admit is that, in a knowledge economy, some knowledge is more valuable than
The broad economy has less demand for experts on the writings of Jane Austen
than it has for software engineers and nurses. Students who want to raise the
market value of their college degree should choose a knowledge area that has
stable or growing demand. That doesn’t mean they have to give up their passion
for Jane Austen; they just have to give up on the notion that such expertise
will be generously rewarded in the marketplace.
Though college can be a life-changing experience, for the vast majority of
students who head off to college each year, earning a bachelor’s degree is about
getting a job. Such bluntness may offend those who celebrate college as a
sanctuary for personal growth. But young adults increasingly need a degree
simply to access today’s job market.
What many students don’t realize is that their personal preparation for the
job market requires more than just the degree. Meeting people in the field,
joining organizations, making connections and pursuing internships are ways to
enhance marketability. Students who choose to make the most of their time on
campus — both in and out of the classroom — are usually the ones who see the
greatest return on their educational investment.
Students who choose to minimize costs will also see greater return. Yes, the
cost of college has skyrocketed over the past three decades. The published price
for tuition and fees at many schools now hovers around $40,000 per year. Yet,
many schools charge substantially less and still provide excellent workforce
preparation. Out in the job market, graduates with similar degrees and abilities
are likely to receive similar pay, whether they spent (or borrowed) $40,000 on
their education or $140,000. That means the ones who choose to spend and borrow
less are likely to get more economic value out of their college degree.
Even families who have a large pot of money put aside to spend on high-priced
schools should be wary of over-investing. If the economic events of the past
three years teach anything, it’s that circumstances can change quickly and
dramatically. A job loss, a health crisis, a stock market crash may suddenly
turn once-manageable tuition payments into overwhelming family burdens.
Beyond costs and majors, getting a good return on the college investment
requires that students finish what they start. Students who fail to graduate —
and nearly half don’t earn that degree — receive little payback on their
investment of time and money. Yes, there are some celebrated stories of
billionaire dropouts, but, in general, students see little economic benefit for
‘some college.’ It’s the degree that has market value, not the 115 credit hours
and six years of study.
Is college worth it? Yes. But families have to do their part. Parents and
students must resist the hype and the emotion and see the college decision for
what it is — a family financial investment in the success of the next
generation. A marketable major, deliberate attention to professional
development, a realistic attitude toward costs and debt, and a commitment to
completion go a long way toward making college pay.”