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Is College Worth It? A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education

3.5 rating

In 100 Words or Less: For decades, college has been the default next stop of every high school graduate; not a question of if, but where and how much. However, there are good reasons to question the conventional wisdom and explore the growing range of alternatives.

For many of us, our choice in secondary education will be one of the most expensive decisions we ever make. Conventional wisdom holds that college is more or less synonymous with success; students only have to go and graduate, and a lucrative, stable career was sure to follow.

However, particularly since 2008 — although in reality, predating the recession — that is no longer the case. Recent data from the Census Bureau and Department of Labor suggests that over half of all recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

Whether we are fortunate enough to have parents who are willing to absorb these costs or we obtain financing that will take us decades to pay off, we owe it ourselves to weigh this decision very carefully.

This is a very important book, in spite of a few flaws (namely, it’s very repetitive and could’ve been much shorter). Here are my key takeaways:

  • The nation’s combined federal and private student-loan debt exceeds $1 trillion in 2011 and continues to balloon at a rapid pace.

    Unlike conventional loans or lines of credit, student loan debt is readily issued to people who have not demonstrated capacity to pay it back, for example students with poor academic records or those who enroll in majors which are unlikely to command significant salaries.

    Also unlike other debt, student loans can never be discharged in bankruptcy.

  • Beyond the individual burdens of repayment, our nation’s collective student debt may well prove to be the next housing bubble; just as various government incentives contributed to a glut of cheap homes financed to borrowers without the means to make payments.
  • Tuition costs have risen well in excess of inflation for decades (over 300% since 1990; or four times inflation, according to a 2012 Barron’s report).
  • Because families and lenders continue to readily pay the asking price, universities aren’t strongly incentivized to control costs.
  • Students spend substantially less time studying now outside of class (12-16 hours, depending on whose study) than they did in 1960 (40 hours).
  • Universities often spend lavish sums on sports programs or amenities which do not measurably contribute to the greater goals of educating students or preparing them for the jobs marketplace.
  • Highly paid professors may spend most of their time on research which does not benefit students directly, offloading the actual teaching of their subjects to underpaid adjuncts.
  • From a financial perspective, too many programs at too many schools do not offer a worthwhile return on investment; there is either insufficient market demand for the position, or the salaries are too low to justify the cost of obtaining the eduction.

    Other majors may offer good employment prospects but are nonetheless vastly overpriced at many schools (often private schools who inflate costs in order to confer “prestige”).

    Of course, students may enroll for love of the work or the school any way, but the point is that they should be made clearly aware of the costs and consider their alternatives.

  • There remains a strong demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jobs which American high school and college education apparently cannot keep up with; currently, many of these jobs are filled by immigrants (according to one study, accounting for over 50% of the growth in these fields between 2003 and 2008).
  • Some colleges and majors really do offer nearly universal return on investment; for example, graduates of Stanford, Harvard or MIT almost always outperform their peers. Similarly, degrees in Petroleum Engineering reliably produce disproportionate salaries (currently, it’s the top grossing major for mid-career earnings).
  • We often hear that graduates may expect to earn more than $1M more than non-graduates, but those averages are substantially skewed both by (a) top graduates of top institutions, and (b) graduates who go on to earn additional degrees (for example, J.D.’s or M.D.’s).
  • It is difficult to evaluate the worth of a particular degree because many universities do not readily share relevant statistics; graduation rates, employment rates or starting salaries, for example.
  • Universities generally are not held accountable for failures to adequately educate and prepare their students. Acknowledging that students are responsible for maximizing the opportunities provided to them, it can also true that students aren’t provided sufficient opportunities.
  • There are many skilled, well-paying “blue collar” jobs that remain unfilled in the United States today for lack of willing, qualified applicants. (Did you know that electricians, for just one example, earn an average of $53,000 a year but can specialize and earn six figures? I didn’t.) Inevitably, some students — whether because of their talents, preferences or academic histories — are well-qualified for these positions and there are good reasons to think that they would perform poorly at a traditional university. It may be wise to encourage such students to explore these paths.
  • There is also failure at the K-12 level to prepare many students for more rigorous college educations. Students generally shouldn’t have to spend time and valuable tuition dollars on remedial or 101 type courses at the college level; they should arrive on campus having already mastered these subjects.
  • For the many students who realize that a four year college may be a poor investment, the alternatives are rapidly evolving but not yet well established. These include taking credits at an inexpensive community college, trade schools, online courses, apprenticeships and even military service.

This book also resonates with my own experience. I took me ten years to earn a B.S. in Computer Science; I began right out of high school but ended up taking several years off to chase other interests and figure things out (basically, to “grow up”).

When I started in 1998, my small, private Christian school cost nearly $20,000 a year. I was fortunate that my parents could afford to pay for me to attend and that they were gracious enough to see me through my earlier, unfocused years. Of course, I also enjoyed playing college basketball and the experience of living away from home and making new friends. The social benefits are real and to be appreciated.

However to this day, the glaring fact remains that I could learn now what I learned then for a ridiculously small fraction of what we paid my alma mater. A single semester of, say, database development set me back roughly $1,400; I could spend $299 for a year of unlimited access to dozens of high-quality courses on PluralSight, read a few books and obtain the same knowledge (and maybe more) in a couple weeks of concentrated study. So for me, was $20,000 a year to play college basketball and make friends really a good investment of my parents’ hard-earned money?

To be clear, the authors insist (and I’d agree) that for many students, a college education their best move. For these students, the point is to carefully consider the costs and check all assumptions before diving in. For others, college is a very expensive use of time and money that would be better invested elsewhere.

I enjoyed this book and can’t help but contemplate what higher education will look like when my kids (currently 6 and 4) are preparing to attend. For all its successes, the entire industry is failing on multiple fronts and is ripe for disruption. Whether you’re preparing to send your children to school this fall or ten years from now, it’s worth asking Is College Worth It?

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.

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