Despite costs and doubts, college degree remains an investment that pays off

Whenever someone insists we send too many high school graduates on to college, I resist the urge to say, “Let’s start with your kids and see how that goes.”

??????????????????????Yes, everyone knows about the successful CEOs and innovators without college degrees — Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. But many more Americans without degrees are struggling and facing futures without the possibility of a tech start-up that will turn them into billionaires.

The soaring cost of college combined with the weak job market for newly minted graduates has prompted a reconsideration of the value of a degree. While a college degree may not matter to those gifted with world-class genius, it makes a difference for the rest of us. We ought to ensure young people understand a college degree remains a good investment that pays out in a lifetime of higher earnings.

In fact, the wage differential between college and high school graduates is higher than ever. Between 1979 and 2012, the gap in annual earnings between a median college-educated two-income household and a median high school-educated two-income one jumped by $28,000.

Writing in the journal Science earlier this year, MIT economist David Autor said inflation-adjusted, full-time earnings of college-educated males increased from 20 percent to 56 percent between 1980 and 2012, depending on whether they also acquired graduate degrees. During that same period, real earnings of high school graduates fell 11 percent, and earnings of high school dropouts fell 22 percent.

A panel at Spelman College this week discussed the worth of a college diploma in light of skyrocketing tuition costs. The discussion followed a screening of the new documentary “Ivory Tower,” which premieres on CNN at 9 p.m. Thursday. The ambitious film tackles all the big questions: college access, affordability and relevance. (I’m not sure it answers any of them, but it’s fast-paced and interesting.)

Panelist Brian K. Bridges, a United Negro College Fund vice president, told the audience of mostly Spelman women, “Don’t get into your mind that college isn’t worth it. The vast majority of people, on average, earn more than twice what someone with a high school diploma earns. Yes, in the last recession, college students had a hard time getting a job, but not as hard a time as people without a degree.”

The panelists agreed the price of college was hurting low-income students, and that higher education had to rein in costs or risk becoming a system affordable only to the affluent.

“The cost of college is unsustainable,” said Bridges. “It has increased more than a thousand percent in the last 34 years. If that continues, college will become the province of only the most wealthy in the country.”

Before the recession, Georgia State University students graduated $13,000 in debt on average, said Timothy Renick, vice president for enrollment management. Now, it’s $20,000.

As with many public colleges, GSU endured crippling cuts in state funding. In 1967, GSU’s share of revenue coming from state support was 67 percent; today, it’s 35.2 percent. That has prompted new efforts to contain costs, including examining courses at the time of registration to see if GSU students were enrolled in the right classes for their programs. The latest review led to 2,000 instances of students moving from courses that didn’t fit, said Renick.

Colleges are “squirming” under growing concerns about their missions and their methods, said panelist Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of “American Higher Education In Crisis?” That squirming may be why College Board data released Thursday showed the trend of rising college sticker prices was slowing.

“All colleges have to pay attention and rethink how they operate at every level,” she said. “This is really about their reinvention, but the question we ask at the Chronicle is, reinvention for whom?”

Reader Comments 0

22 comments
Tcope
Tcope

I am in a financial  position to pay the tuition of my kids to go through any college they want to go to.  However, I am still threatening to buy them 3 subway sandwich franchises each instead of paying for tuition.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

No question, there are at least 3 distinct groups of HS grads - 1) those who should go to college, 2) those who should not go to college, and 3) those for whom college might work out.


Unfortunately, college for many in groups 2 and 3 has become a 4-6 year extended party, paid for by their Uncle (Sam).   Without any thought as to who is going to eventually have to pay back all that "free govt-backed money".  A drug dealer could't come up with a better plan - make it easy to get hooked, make the ride a great time, and don't let them think about what happens when the party comes to a screeching halt.

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

forgot the best part - then blame the "evil conservatives" for heartlessly not agreeing to provide even more school loan support.  Conveniently forgetting that the reason college cost has increased at such an insane rate is because of this "easy funding".

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@dcdcdc 

No---college costs have increased because for about a decade, states have severely cut their funding to the colleges. They decided that students should pay the cost of being educated, not the taxpayers.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@OriginalProf

Yeah, except that the out of state tuition, you know the unsubsidized part, has increased by a multiplier of 4-5 times the rate of inflation. 

What else ya got, Vern??

Tcope
Tcope

@OriginalProf @dcdcdc 

Private colleges and Universities have increased tuition along the same percentages as public schools. I think blaming the level of government spending is silly. 

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Lee_CPA2 @OriginalProf 

"Vern"?? Don't get it.

Yes, you're right about out-of-state tuition generally. This helps "subsidize" the in-state tuition charged to help make it affordable for the children of state taxpayers. Tuition never covers the cost of a student's education.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Tcope 

There can be many reasons for schools increasing tuition, and those for private schools (which usually have higher tuition to start with) aren't necessarily the same as for public schools. Private colleges and Universities have had financial problems ever since the Recession began in 2008, including dwindling endowments and increased competition from the lower priced public schools.


It is simply a fact that in nearly all states since 2007-8, their legislatures have significantly reduced their funding of state colleges and universities.  Meanwhile,  student enrollment has swiftly risen as more went back to school to increase job mobility. Where are these schools to get the money to cover their costs except through raised tuition?

Reality Check here
Reality Check here

Well of course a college education is an important ticket punch. It always has been. But previous commenters are absolutely right when they say some majors are relatively useless when it comes to getting a job.

Technical schools are undervalued in our society and the ivory tower has more credibility than it deserves. It is especially disturbing to hear them whine about lack of money when college expenditures are one of the most rapidly inflating items in this economy. That is empirical, and senior administrators just demand more with almost no accountability. If there is some squirming going on by colleges, fine. But I doubt it is sincere. Ultimately they will focus on new sources of revenue to the exclusion of just about everything else.

jmc1007
jmc1007

With the easy flow of loans to college students, that's the reason college cost keep going up.  Colleges know they can raise cost and the government will cover it.  We need to go back to private funding for college loans.  Also, no, a college degree is not worth it, especially when you have students majoring in FuFu degrees like woman studies, Racial studies, philosophy, etc. which do not translate into being actually able to do something when you graduate.  Fine if someone wants to study that stuff, but let them pay for it, and don't complain when you can't find a job.


Hands on job experience and actually making or doing something will always get you a job, with a little training now and then. Tech or Vocational schools are far better...

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Love your first paragraph.  I have noticed that many of those with that opinion do not mean THEIR kids, just those "other" kids.

Intteach
Intteach

It starts with the "one size fits all" high school diploma that assumes everyone will go to college. It continues with families being pressured into the same mindset and being faced with the attitude that if your child does not go to college you are a failure as a parent. Or the value that is attributed to a high school where more than 90% of the senior class are accepted at a four-year school.

I am not sure whether this is the result of a genius market ploy where we now believe college is the one and only path for our children. Reality is about 70% of high school graduates go to college. Of those only 40% will graduate in four years, 60% will graduate in six years. Where are the others? What are they doing? Those are significant numbers that are just swept under the rug as "unfortunate failures".

The problem is that there is not much offered to students that are not going the college route.That is our short-coming. I'd like to point to countries like Switzerland (has anybody seen Mike Rowe's video from the Swiss embassy?), Austria and Germany where it is not only completely accepted to "learn a trade" but where it is considered the safe route after high school before entering college or university. Even if you never complete college there are a variety of ways how you can learn a profession and still earn a decent income. Very decent income in Germany. And no one looks down on you.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

At the risk of being shouted out of the park here, I will add as a retired University professor that the process of getting a Liberal Arts degree is also a personal investment that pays off---never mind the practical one of job-preparation. The students' minds are expanded by taking those Core courses in the physical sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts that all are required to take during the first two years, no matter what their major turns out to be.  As Kenneth Burke once said: "Poetry is the equipment for living."

Astropig
Astropig

@OriginalProf 

I'm certainly not going to shout you out.The world needs poets,dreamers and philosophers.My problem is when these people spend the years after college lamenting what they consider the "unfair" economic reality that attends poets,dreamers and philosophers.Maybe you know what Aristotle was really driving at in his works. That's great.Now go make a living with that knowledge. But don't blame the achievers that have no use for abstractions like art and can afford that second house on the lake.That's what bothers me about the class envy and resentment that I see with some millennials.Poets from ancient times have almost always had to"suffer" for their art.But this generation thinks that they are suffering untold indignities because their English degree could only get them a job at Hobby Lobby.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@OriginalProf 

And I would say many, many parents (you know, the ones paying the bills) would opine that colleges could eliminate one full year of college by getting rid of these Core Electives.  I'm sure it is great fun for the college student to sit around in a class called "Ways of Knowing", or "Love and Sex", or "Understanding Peace and Conflict", but when you're the one writing the check, not so much.

I was a non-traditional student - meaning I was working a full time job and going to night school when I earned both my BBA and MBA.  I was also paying my own way with my hard earned money.  I have always felt that most of the core classes were bulls**t - just a way for the college to keep raking in the tuition money.

Maybe you should ask the college grad "Hey, the next three student loan payments for for that Philosophy elective, or that World History requirement, do you feel it is worth the money and interest you are now paying?"

I bet most would say Hell No!

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Lee_CPA2 @OriginalProf 

Why don't your examples include, say, Astronomy, Biology, or Political Science? Core courses include those. I was not a Science major, but I found that Astronomy with its study of a limitless Outer Space was, as we used to say then, "mind-blowing."


Core courses are intended to give undergraduates a basic understanding of the major areas of knowledge, and are required for Liberal Arts degrees.  If you don't want to take them, then don't try to get a Liberal Arts degree but a technical or purely professional one. Your choice. But don't ask the school to change its programs.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

@OriginalProf 

CORE CURRICULUM classes are required by everyone regardless of degree program.  Hence, the problem.  The "well rounded student" argument is a complete fallacy perpetrated by the heads of the Humanities and other departments who would be out of a job if not for these requirements.

Most students view these classes as an 1) inconvenience and/or 2) an easy A.

As I said earlier, since I was a non-traditional student and was paying my own way, I despised these courses and viewed them as a way the college could extract more money from me.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Lee_CPA2 @OriginalProf 

The University does not decide whether the degree major should take these Core curriculum courses; the field's academic administrators decide whether their students would best benefit from a Liberal Arts degree or a more narrow professional one.  You were evidently an Accounting major. You could have gotten one of the quick Business degrees in Accounting available at 1-3 year schools, but decided to get a University degree with the BBA. Your choice.


The rationale I have heard from Business professors for the Core courses is that nowadays graduating Business students may need a wider knowledge of various fields or more global preparation. Their students will be more attractive to future employers if they have a broadly based education, and can adjust to various business situations. 


Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

"We ought to ensure young people understand a college degree remains a good investment that pays out in a lifetime of higher earnings."

Bull hockey. Many degrees aren't worth the paper they are printed on.  Maybe the AJC should do a little research and present a comparison of the various degree programs and their earnings potential. 

Pending that, you could just peruse the Bureau of Labor Statistics and see for yourself the earnings potential of various job families.

MattClark
MattClark

Learning how to do something that someone else is willing to pay for (i.e. a job) is the key.   Do that you will be fine.  And those who say going to college is not about getting a job are just being foolish.

EdUktr
EdUktr

No mention of alternatives to college such as trade schools and apprenticeships. Nor of self-study courses which use testing to certify knowledge attained.

And access to continuing education isn't a right of citizenship.