Is College Worth It?
College applications are due and, if you are the parent of a high school senior, the stress is mounting.
I was in tears still trying to write my application essays the night before they were due and I doubt my mother was far behind. (If this is you and your senior, it may make you feel better to hear that I finished and was accepted to Yale.)
As you burn the midnight oil, and maybe peak at your bank balance, you might be thinking, "is all this effort and money worth it?"
According to the experts, it matters how you define "worth".
Depending on who you ask, college may be a life-affirming experience, a ticket to higher earnings, or the most expensive party you ever threw for an 18 year old. Before you hand over that big tuition check, you should have a serious discussion about your teen's goals.
[Photo Credit: Will Folsom]
College Graduates Earn More, Have Better Job Prospects
It is true that, on average, a college graduate earns almost $20,000 a year more than a high school graduate. Even taking into account four years of missed earnings and student loans, the Pew Center calculates a college degree from an in-state, public university is worth an additional $550,000 of lifetime earnings. The number varies depending on your major and whether or not you attend a public university but still remains high. Plus, college graduates are more likely to have consistent employment.
From his experience as a hiring manager for a large non-profit, Derek Gillette, CEO of Derek Gillette Consulting, explains the preference for college graduates: "A college degree on a resume demonstrates an ability to finish a task."
Graduates, he argues, also know how to learn from mistakes: "College is essentially a protected bubble where students figure out who they are, what to believe in, and what happens when you fail and how to recover. This is a skill that, as a hiring manager, is very valuable."
Photo credit: Craig Pennington
More Than Just a Career Builder
Currently, I work part time from home as an educational consultant and writer and most of my waking hours are dedicated to my primary occupation: motherhood. Oh, and sneer if you must: I majored in Theater Studies.
Yet, if you ask me if my college education was "worth it", I answer with a resounding "yes!" Despite having paid back tens of thousands in debt (and costing my parents even more), I wouldn't trade it for that money back, with interest.
Of course, my liberal arts alma mater heavily indoctrinated students with the cult of the "examined life". And my satisfaction with my education might have something to do with a sort of buyer's rationalization (we tend to look back favorably on decisions we cannot "undo") and the fact that I met my husband there. Four years of education...over $100,000. A happy marriage and three wonderful kids...priceless!
Photo Credit: Flickr
Should we be judging the value of college based on the bottom line?
Diane Gayeski, Dean of the Roy H Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, thinks not. "This is the moment for most young people when they can get away from their home towns, re-invent themselves, meet new friends, and be exposed to ideas or subject matter that they may never have chosen themselves. In general, college-educated people actually develop more ways to enjoy life -- they may be more confident at traveling and speaking other languages, they develop lifetime friendships with interesting people, they appreciate the arts, literature, even sports to a great extent, and they become more flexible and resilient."
According to Pew Center research, at least 39% of Americans agree that the main purpose is to help a student grow personally and intellectually. However, more (47%) say the main purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills and knowledge.
And that is where, some experts are arguing, colleges are failing.
Students Leave College Saddled with Debt, Few Marketable Skills
So, why are some people, like Pablo Solomon, a former consultant for the U.S. Department of Education, calling college a "scam"?
Photo Credit: "Indentured Student" by "DonkeyHotey"
Solomon argues, "The real secret is that colleges are the biggest rips offs in America. The staffs and teachers are overpaid, get ridiculously generous benefits and retirements, and perpetuate fields of study that are archaic and provide no real chance of employment other than teaching in a college."
In an article urging technology companies to stop requiring college degrees, James O'Neill, who runs the Thiel Foundation, argues that college has become little more than a rite of passage. He points to a study with some grim statistics: College students spend the vast majority of their time (75%) sleeping and socializing, working, studying, and attending class only accounts for an average of six hours a day.
O'Neill writes, "It’s not clear why kids should have to pay to learn how to sleep and socialize. Most people get pretty good at doing both for free."
Disturbingly, especially to the parents (and sometimes tax payers) footing the bills, the same study found that 45 percent of college students showed no significant gains in learning, and after four years, 36 percent showed almost no change in skills, including skills like "critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing".
Photo credit: Jessie Hart
And what about all those great books, brilliant composers, and fascinating bits of history you miss out on by skipping university? Solomon suggests these topics "can be learned at the library or watching PBS."
Everyone with whom I spoke agreed that many teens are not yet ready for the challenges and responsibilities of college--and that attending college without a plan means a student will not get the best value for his or her dollar (or parents' dollars).
Even the biggest college boosters to whom I spoke agree that some young adults just are not ready yet for college.
Young adults can learn valuable skills in the workforce, make connections with mentors, and learn about themselves and the field that interests them. They can also take a few courses at a local community college to maintain academic skills, explore possible career options, and even work towards certifications.
With these insights, they will waste less time and money on courses that do not end up being a match.
In the meantime, they can save money and invest any college fund savings. This way, if they do go to college, they will finish with less debt.
My friends who took a year or two off before college were more mature, more focused, and more efficient. They still took time to make friends but they also earned the best marks, made more productive schedule choices, and interacted better with professors.
What do you think is the goal of a university education? If you graduated college, was your degree "worth it"? If your teenager wants to delay or skip college, would you be okay with that?
Main photo credit: "Uni" by Stewart Black