Is a college education worth the (great) expense?

cap_booksAt first glance, the answer is a loud “Yes.”  The unemployment rate during the current recession for college graduates, 4.0%, is less than ½ that of high school graduate, 9.4 %.  (source: TRENDS IN STUDENT AID, College Board, 2012) That same report points out that lifetime earnings for college graduates is more than twice that of high school graduates. End of debate?

Viewed as a consumer product and a consumer decision, perhaps not. Does the American higher education marketplace offer a worthwhile product at a reasonable price? The comments by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute at a September, 2012 program hosted by the Cato Institute challenges many common assumptions. (source: Cato Institute, Cato’s Letter, Winter, 2013).

We should be shocked that more freshmen than not do NOT complete a degree within six years? The “persistence rate” for minority students is a national embarrassment. This is a waste of resources no nation can afford.

Can we assume the possessor of a B.A. can write effectively and think critically? Have colleges compromised quality for quantity, conferring a piece of paper at great expense, but not an education? Our economy and our culture demands that everyone go to college, but is that meaningless in the “every Little Leaguer gets a trophy” environment?  One-third of adults have a B.A. degree; does a B.A. degree mean anything to a prospective employer if (almost) everyone has one?

Murray argues that we have created a stratified , class-driven college system which for some offers a challenging and meaningful  life-long education and which for most provides simply a piece of paper which means little to the student except the  burden of student loans.

Dr. Murray’s solution? Colleges should be asked to adapt to consumer (a.k.a. “student”) needs. For example, create courses-of-study which fit student employment objectives and offer  long-term career flexibility,  AND  demand skills –driven assessments at the program completion which appear on the transcript and have meaning to employers, similar to Law Boards or CPA exams.

The for-profit college sector accomplishes the first part (job skills for the short –term) but is not fulfilling the second. The liberal arts colleges of America profess to tackle the second (the long-term value of an education) but dismiss the first. The consumer marketplace sees escalating prices and diminishing value.

What does this have to do with you? More than ever you need to be a savvy consumer. Do your research and ask tough questions of yourself and the university/college you are considering.  Graduation rates, job placement in your major, student loan debt?

Think about how you buy a car, balancing “want” and “need.” What you can afford ends with a judgment as to what segment of the automobile marketplace to pursue. Selecting a college for application should be no different.  The goal?  Reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking skills for life at a reasonable price with manageable debt.

Remember, to paraphrase Jeffrey Selingo from his excellent recent book, COLLEGE UNBOUND (New Harvest, 2013) “the end result (of the college experience) should be an education and a job.”

By David Clark, College Search Now