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Articles / Paying for College / College: Worth It or Not?

June 24, 2014

College: Worth It or Not?

I've written before about whether or not college is worth it. Perhaps one way to look at it, to paraphrase a former United States president, would be to say, “It depends on what the meaning of 'worth it' is." Is college worth it strictly from a lifetime earnings perspective or worth it from a life-enrichment aspect? Or both? There are two kinds of “value," you know.

First, let's take a look at the value of college from an economic (earnings) and “opportunity" angle. When you search the Web for answers to the query “Is college worth it?" you get the usual avalanche of responses. I chose two from the “About 465,000,000 results [found in] (0.32 seconds)." The first is by Jill Schlesinger, business analyst at CBS News. Her article's thesis states:

As the Class of 2014 throws their caps into the air during this graduation season, many graduates must now face the stark reality of a mound of education debt. Given the still-tough job market, many families continue to wonder whether college is worth it. The answer is yes, with a caveat.


What's the caveat?

… don't go into hock up to your eyeballs — and parents, please don't raid your retirement accounts and borrow against your home — to do so.

That makes sense, obviously, but easier said than done, in my view. Anyway, what are some of Schlesinger's worth-it points?

– … the unemployment rate for young college graduates stands at 8.5 percent, much lower than the 22.9 percent for high school graduates.

– … household income of young adults with college loans is nearly twice that of people who didn't attend college ($57,941 vs. $32,528).

– … a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco shows that the average US college grad can expect to earn at least $800,000 more than the average high school graduate over a lifetime …

– … Priceonomics blog pegs the 30-year wage premium at $200,000 of extra income ($6,667 a year) compared to that of a high school graduate's salary.

– Researchers at Georgetown predict that in the next six years, the share of jobs requiring post-secondary education will likely increase to 64 percent by 2020 …

Need more convincing? Let's extract the main pro-college points from Anthony Carnevale's testimonial about college's worth.

Anthony's opening salvo is blunt and forceful:

Those who make the “skip college" argument often bolster their arguments with official state and national Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data suggesting that the U.S. higher education system has been turning out far more college grads than current or future job openings require.

To a public wary of paying steep tuition bills in a depressed economy, it all sounds alarming and — with the backing of national and state government BLS data — authoritative.

There's just one problem with the official BLS statistics: they're wrong.

He provides a detailed rationale for his position on that and then goes on to categorize his reasons for a college education. Here are the bullet points. You can take in all the details yourself.

– There is a better explanation for the puzzling official data that suggest we are producing too many college graduates: Official education demand numbers have serious flaws.

Technology drives ongoing demand for better-educated workers … Wage data show that employers have tended to hire workers with postsecondary credentials for these more complex positions — and pay a wage premium to get them.

Spate of media stories on value of college fuels needless fears … Stories on the value of college tend to follow the business cycle, and when the cycle is down, journalists often find it easy to write a story that bucks the conventional wisdom.

College is still the best safe harbor in bad economic times … while it is true that the sticker price cost of going to college has risen faster than the inflation rate, the college wage premium has risen even faster, both in terms of the cost of going to college and the inflation rate.

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Okay. I've taken the time to excerpt the key points from two experts (expert excerpts: an appealing alliteration, don't you think?) about why college is worth it from a personal economic perspective (as long as you don't drown in debt). Now, let me enthrall you with my personal perspective about why college is worth it from a life-enrichment aspect. (Yes, here we go again with yet another of Dave's The Way We Were sagas.
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I came from a conservative (some would say reactionary) blue-collar community whose chief economic stimulus came from the railroad and its ongoing employment juggernaut. Thus, my cultural environment was quite cloistered. Although I had access to and attended a well-above-average high school, I was intellectually lazy and failed to take advantage of a reasonably wide array of stimulating extracurriculars, such as drama clubs, music groups, specialized science clubs, and the like. I focused on sports — baseball and tennis — to the exclusion of deeper cortex-enhancing undertakings. I guess I should also include “girls" as one of my focal points, since that area was perhaps both the most engrossing and challenging activity of my high school years.
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Anyway, as my loyal readers (or should that be “reader"?) know, my chief motivator for attending college was the fact that I was recruited for tennis. Otherwise, I might have gone to Computer Systems Institute and become an IT maven. A funny thing happened to me while I was at college. I learned about things that stimulated my intellect and ultimately became life-long passions for me.
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In the realm of literature, I came to know authors, such as D. H. Lawrence and John Cheever, whose works stimulated my own writing interests. In the arts, I discovered Dimitri Shostakovich and Samuel Barber in music and Goya and Pollock in painting. I also learned about acoustics, common-sense mathematics, and the German language (to this day, I can still state with authority, “Yes, that is the window!" so that any native Deautslander can understand). I could prattle on about how college expanded my thinking from that of a small-town layabout to that of a small-town pseudo-intellectual, but I'll spare you that misery.
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My point (Yes! Dave has a point!) is that college, in the true meaning of “higher" education is about more, possibly much more, than making greater amounts of money over your lifetime. As I look back over the many decades since I graduated from college, I can recall periods when money was hard to come by and my degree may not have been pulling its weight in helping me land lucrative employment. However, even in the depths of those periods, when I was discouraged and feeling blue about my circumstances, I had compensating resources that got me through. Nothing can pick up my day like the final movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, the finale of Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto, or the fugue from Beethoven's C-sharp minor String Quartet. How about D. H. Lawrence's The Horse Dealer's Daughter? Or Picasso's Guernica? Without college, I may never have known these works.
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Of course, your counterpoint may be, “Hey, I don't need college to enjoy great music and art!" That point of view reminds me of the legendary bar scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon (as Will Hunting), a non-college graduate, explains to an elitist Harvard bore flaunting his Ivy League college knowledge, “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you coulda' picked up for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library." (This was in the late '90s, so double that Harvard cost figure.)
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So, bottom-lining from my perspective … Is college worth it? You bet. Just keep a lid on the debt.
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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.
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Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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