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Is College Worth It?

As the chorus of education bubble theorists grows louder, parents and kids still believe that a college education is the ticket to success. Has the value of a college degree diminished?

Is College Worth It?

When I was a kid, things were pretty simple. Earn decent grades and SAT scores, play a sport or two and maybe an instrument, get a bachelor’s and you’ll be just fine. Promise!

What a kick in the shins it must be for our current crop of college graduates, who worked like hell to get into college, only to find that very few jobs exist for folks without experience. One recent report suggested that 85 percent — 85 percent! — of college graduates move back in with their parents following graduation.

As if that’s not enough, the average student debt totals about $24,000 — good luck paying that back without a job. And, by the way, only under the most extreme circumstances is student debt discharged through bankruptcy.

Parents, who often times foot the bill for four or more years of presumed intellectual pursuits, are becoming increasingly concerned about their child’s chosen course of study. Little Sally wants to be a chemical engineer? Fabulous! Johnny wants to major in liberal arts? Well … enjoy that post-grad camp counselor job.

The point is, people are questioning the once-unquestionable. Paypal founder Peter Thiel offered 24 elite current students $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue an entrepreneurship goal. Trade schools, which teach un-outsourceable skills, report that their student populations have risen significantly. Yet the flood of applications to our institutions of higher learning continues, costs keep rising, and no one seems to know if their kids are getting their money’s worth.

Quite frankly, I cannot imagine any of my kids not going to college, unless one expressed a strong desire to become a plumber, an electrician or the like. My husband and I place a very high premium on education. We also believe that the experience of living away from home teaches its own lessons.

Yet as my oldest begins his search — and I'm eyeballing the annual price tag, which seems to hover around $30 to $50K a year — I ask myself, how on earth are we going to afford this, and if he has to take a student loan, will he be able to pay it back?

I like to think that as the price of a product goes up, so does the quality of the product. By many estimates, average college tuition has risen well over 400 percent since 1982, far outpacing inflation in other areas. Residency costs have more than doubled. Is the average college degree 400 percent more valuable now than it was in 1982? Are the teachers 400 percent smarter, the opportunities 400 percent greater, the facilities 400 percent improved?

I am skeptical that the answer to any of these questions is a resounding yes.

So far, higher ed apologists haven’t really adequately explained why education isn’t in a bubble. They point out that the majority of college grads earn more than their non-college-educated counterparts (true). They say that a college degree has never been a sure-fire indicator of financial success (that’s debatable, based on the earnings data). And they claim that debt loads aren’t too high, that after grants and tax credits, real tuition has declined.

Yet the facts remain: prices go up every year. Average loan balances go up every year. Graduates and dropouts can’t find jobs. And most schools charge the same for expensive science degree programs as they do for less costly “soft” majors, even though science departments are much more expensive to operate.

Nevertheless, the wage gap between those who go, graduate and can find employment and those who don't go or who drop out is large and growing. Yet, I find myself wondering, where is the entrepreneurship skills training, where is the encouragement for those who really aren’t all that interested in traditional book learning?

We widely credit college for broadening horizons and subtly discredit un-snooty technical programs. Why? The last time I checked, you don’t call India when you need a plumber.

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