Opinion: Is higher education worth the cost?

It’s the end of spring, the beginning of summer, which means college graduation for millions of Americans.

During the 2017-2018 school year, almost 5,000 degree-granting institutions of higher education will award just under 4 million degrees: a million associate degrees, 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees, 800,000 master’s degrees and 180,000 doctorates.

The data show that higher education graduation numbers continue to grow along with the percentages of those with a college degree. A third of Americans 25 years or older now have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That is a significant increase from the 28 percent figure a decade ago. In 1940, it was under 5 percent.

But despite this rise, Americans are divided on the value of a college education. In a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 49 percent of respondents agreed that a four-year degree was “worth the cost.” Forty-seven percent disagreed.

This is a shift. In 2013, a similar question had 54 percent for and 40 percent against.

There are good arguments on the “worth it” side.

  • College graduates have lower unemployment rates (in April 2018, the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 1.9 percent, compared to 4.1 percent for those with only a high school diploma). They also make more money (it is estimated that over their lifetime, a college graduate will make $1 million more than nongraduates.)
  • College graduates are needed for a healthy economy. The U.S. economy will grow from 140 million jobs to 165 million jobs by 2020. Of these, 35 percent will require at least a bachelor’s degree, 30 percent will require some college or an associate’s degree, and 36 percent will not require education beyond high school.
  • College graduates add value beyond dollars and cents. They vote and volunteer at much higher rates (at double the rates of high school graduates) and are significantly healthier (including lower smoking rates and higher exercise rates).

But there are also good arguments on the “against it” side.

  • College is expensive. About 40 percent of adults below the age of 30 have student debt. The median student loan debt is $17,000, but this varies considerably. A quarter owe $7,000 or less, and a quarter owed $43,000 or more.
  • College is time-consuming. Only about a third of those attending public four-year institutions receive their degree in four years. More than a third take six years or longer.
  • Economic returns vary tremendously depending on factors such as college attended and major. For example, the average starting salary for an electrical engineering degree is $62,000. For social work, it is $37,000.
  • There are real and varied economic opportunities open to those without a college degree, including paralegal work, carpentry, web development and appliance repair.

While the data show that it makes sense on average to attend and graduate from college, none of us is average. We all have different backgrounds, aspirations and life circumstances. Decisions as important as this should not be automatic. Whether to attend college, and when to attend, should take into account all those factors that make us individuals.

— Gene A. Budig is the former president/chancellor of three major universities. He was also president of baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.


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