Elite college degrees may not pay off

May 4, 2012


It is something of a truism that whenever the federal government steps in, costs usually rise and efficiency declines.

That is especially true when it comes to a college education, which President Obama promised during the 2008 campaign to make more affordable. “We’ve got to make sure every young person can afford to go to college,” he said then. Instead, tuition costs keep rising, along with the debt owed by increasing numbers of graduates, who are now campaigning — with bipartisan approval in an election year — for Congress to stop interest rates on their subsidized Stafford loans from doubling in July.

I feel about those with crushing tuition debt the way I feel about people who choose to live along the frequently flooded banks of the Mississippi River. If students and their parents choose expensive schools, they should accept the responsibility and cost accompanying that decision.

The federal government has no constitutional authority to require people to receive an education. Education should be the primary responsibility of state and local entities (and parents). Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for college tuition when graduates default on loans they agreed to repay. What kind of life lesson is it when this early test of a young person’s character is said not to matter?

But, today, is all that college debt even worth it?

The value of a college education — at least at the more pricey private universities — is declining. An Associated Press analysis of government data found more than half — 53.6 percent — of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25, either couldn’t find a job, or were underemployed last year.

The AP story references a 2011 New York Times article reporting that only half of the jobs landed by new graduates “even require a college degree.” Worse, numerous studies over the years have found too many college graduates often do not meet minimal requirements employers are seeking. Paying more, getting less. That sounds like what we get from government and the U.S. Postal Service.

A surprising new report from the Pathways to Prosperity Project, based at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, concludes that four years of college may no longer be the best preparation for a job and career.

As noted in Harvard’s education magazine, “we place far too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college. Yet only 30 percent of adults successfully complete this preferred pathway. Meanwhile, even in the second decade of the 21st century, most jobs do not require a bachelor’s.”

Thirty percent of new jobs will only require “an associate’s degree or a post-secondary occupational credential,” the report found. It recommends a new direction by broadening “the range of high-quality pathways that we offer young adults. This would include far more emphasis on career counseling and high-quality career education, as well as apprenticeship programs and community colleges as viable routes to well-paying jobs.”

Another surprising fact that argues against costly colleges and universities that impose heavy financial burdens on students, parents and government is found in a study conducted by The Wall Street Journal. It discovered “U.S. companies largely favor graduates of big state universities over Ivy League and other elite liberal-arts schools when hiring to fill entry-level jobs.”

This sounds like a win-win-win. Attend a far less expensive state school and save money; avoid crushing debt that will take decades to repay; and reduce the burden on taxpayers. What’s not to like?

Students and parents should have the right to choose when it comes to college, but if they choose a costly private institution, they should assume the financial obligations that go with that choice. Before choosing, they should look at these studies and consider whether in the long run the supposed prestige and expense of a well-known school are worth the cost, especially if the job or career the student wants doesn’t require a degree, or worse, that there isn’t a job waiting after graduation.

— Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.


Lawrence Morgan 5 years, 8 months ago

You should consider the qualifications by KU for many jobs - they are way above what is necessary. In fact, they often result in people who at best can simply do the job, but who are without imagination, curiosity or flexibility.

It is KU perpetuating itself!

ThePilgrim 5 years, 8 months ago

Amen to that! An engineering student that I know performed an assignment - creating a widget. He made elaborate enhancements to the widget assignment. And was flunked for it. The instructor said that he did not follow the instructions and if he had done this at a regular engineering job that he would have cost the company money on extra parts and labor. And it was important for engineering graduates from KU to follow instructions closely in their jobs or it would reflect poorly on their alma mater. So engineering is not art. And get back to being a mindless drone!

Kendall Simmons 5 years, 8 months ago

Well, there's always the other wide of the story.

I tried to hire an American worker a couple of years ago. Someone to actually create a kind of widget for me. I knew exactly what I wanted...and needed...and knew exactly what I did not want or need.

You have no idea of how many arguments (not suggestions...arguments) I had from guys who tried to convince me that I didn't know what I was talking about. That what they wanted to do was what I really needed.

I finally gave up on hiring a US worker...and hired a guy from India whom I still use. Why? Because he gave me exactly what I wanted and needed...and it worked perfectly!

Paul R Getto 5 years, 8 months ago

"But, today, is all that college debt even worth it?" === This is a key point, Mr. Thomas. Reasonable debt is OK, but many are piling up too much. Colleges are not trade schools, but some promote them that way, suggesting graduates are preparing for a specific job and a good income. While this may be true in some fields, the real reason to go is to expand your mind, your heart and your horizons. If high school grads are solely interested in income enhancement, many of the technical fields will pay more than a typical bachelor's degree. Some interesting points here, hidden in Mr. Thomas' usual polemics. Overall, not bad. I'll give it a B-.

Orwell 5 years, 8 months ago

Shorter Cal:

Stay stupid, my friends.

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