Getting a college degree has become part of the mythology of the American Dream. But when you consider the load of student loan debt that most students have to take on today, instead of blindly following the dictates of the American Dream, it is prudent to stop and ask ourselves if we really will be better off when that diploma comes laden with a ton of debt. In this article I’ll do a cost benefit analysis of the worth of a college degree.
I challenege the conventional wisdom that with a college degree you will be better off in the long run. For one thing that debt can never be discharged in bankruptcy. It will follow you the rest of your life. Even social security checks can be garnished to pay it. Student loan debt has more than quintupled since 1999. Earlier this year American collective student loan debt passed the one trillion dollar mark, more than the nation’s collective credit card debt.
More than half of all recent graduates are either unemployed or working in jobs that don’t require a college diploma. There is a surfeit of college degrees to the extent that they are being required for the most casual jobs just because employers can afford to be choosy, not that the job has anything remotely to do with the training received in college.
According to Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, “Employers seeing a surplus of college graduates and looking to fill jobs are just tacking on that requirement. De facto, a college degree becomes a job requirement for becoming a bartender.” Or a barrista. In a study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, entitled Academically Adrift, the authors find that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. Furthermore, for the rest their increase in knowledge is minimal.
So what is the point of a college degree? The heart of the matter is that what going to college is really all about is not gaining an education but gaining a credential. That credential tells a prospective employer that the holder was smart enough to get into college, enough of a conformist to put up with all the bullshit, and compliant enough to sit there for four years. Presumably, he or she would make a docile and compliant employee and a docile and compliant consumer, in other words, a good American living the American Dream.
But for many the American Dream has become the American Nightmare. For many the dream of living independently goes by the wayside and they have to move back into their parents’ house. For many their payments on their student loans take up most of their meager paychecks, and late payments, forebearances and defaults double and triple the amount owed.
Let’s consider for a moment the “statistics” that maintain you are always better off with a college diploma. Who gathers these statistics? Why it’s people who have a vested interest in recruiting college students, think tanks connected to colleges themselves. And as anyone with a little savvy knows, you can lie with statistics. The college-industrial complex is heavily invested in having you believe that you will make more money over a lifetime with a college diploma than you will with just a high school diploma. Problem is they never include in their statistics the likes of college dropouts like Bill Gates.
In fact, four of the five wealthiest Americans are college dropouts. In addition to Bill Gates, there are fellow billionaires Michael Dell (who dropped out of the University of Texas), Larry Ellison (who dropped out of two colleges) and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (who dropped out of the University of Washington). Did we forget to mention Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (who dropped out of ReedCollege)?
If these guys had been included in the statistics, the results would have been different for sure. They would have skewed the statistics to show that college dropouts made the most money and acquired the most wealth over the course of a lifetime. Furthermore, these guys are in high tech fields, the knowledge for which was not garnered in college!
And what people with just high school diplomas are being included in the statistical studies? It’s surely not enough to just graduate from high school with some generic diploma and say, “Here I am on the job market. What you got for me?” No, but those who use their high school years to acquire useful skills and to set their sights on useful careers are way ahead of the game. People like this are probably not included in the statistical studies either.
I know of a high school dropout from my home town who set up an auto body repair shop and is now a millionaire. There is no reason why a self-employed person using skills developed within and outside of high school during high school years can’t be successfully self-employed. Then the college diploma which at best is only a ticket of admisssion to a corporate job is completely unnecessary. And one is not at the beck and call of one’s employer. You don’t have to bow and scrape and kiss your employer’s ass. Or worry about being laid off!
So what college is really about is credentialization. If you want to be an employee you have to have a credential to please your employer. If you aim towards self-employment, you can not only make more money in the long run, you don’t have to kiss your employer’s ass. You are truly independent. In my article “10 Reasons Not To Go To College” I write about the fact that kids are finding out today that a college diploma does not guarantee you a job. There are many PhDs out there who are driving cabs. And you can be laid off, downsized, outsourced at any time.
How much job security is in that? A case could be made that money spent on a college education could be better spent buying a business or investing in real estate. Then you’re in a position of building wealth not just simply being immersed in the debt culture of a mortgage, car payment, student loan debt and paying bills even if you have a job. And you have a four year head start over those who go to college! The American Dream of being a worker/consumer with debt up the ying-yang is replaced with the American Dream of real financial independence. You don’t have to kiss up to your boss and hope that he won’t be giving you a pink slip. As I said in the previous article:
” College trains you to be a docile and compliant employee. Is this how you want to live your life? As Caspar Milquetoast? The second you mouth off to your boss, you’re history! Be a free and independent individual instead. Have a passion for what you do. Have real knowledge instead of a piece of paper that says you know something. Do real work instead of make work. Be willing to take the risk of starting your own business instead of the pseudo-security of being somebody else’s employee. Then you don’t have to take crap from anyone or kiss anybody’s ass!”
Learning resources are readily available and mostly free. Libraries and the internet enable anyone to receive the equivalent of a college education and learn every possible skill. Khan Academy will teach you everything from math skills to the Greek debt. MIT Opencourseware allows you to take courses ranging from the humanities and the arts to architecture and engineering. Become an autodidact. You will learn a lot more if you study what you are interested in rather than what your professor wants to cram down your throat.
In a recent Newsweek article, Megan McArdle asks “Is College a Lousy Investment”? It is if, after sitting patiently in class for four years, you come out and the only job you can get is flipping burgers or are otherwise employed in the service economy.
If, instead of becoming a professional, you have become a serf. Then you are forced to move back in with your parents and contemplate the huge monthly payment you have to make on your student loan. Forget about getting married, buying a house and raising kids. You are already saddled with a mortgage! Welcome to America’s Screwed Generation.
Good points. My son took the position that college was not worth it a few years ago. He saved his college fund and now works beside a number of college graduates – with deb while he has savings and makes more. Reports indicate over 80% of college graduates move back in with their parents. Less than a third of graduates can find a job anywhere near their field of study and even then the vast majority of all jobs available to a 25 year old does not pay enough to service a student loan, pay rent, health insurance and still eat. Thank you for taking on this subject – you get the salmon award for swimming against the current.
The catch 22 that you yourself stated is that a growing number positions that traditionally never required a degree are now only taking applicants to DO have a degree. There are many many college graduates who are not only working in jobs that before never required a degree but are looking at the possibility that they will NEVER work in such a position. A growing number of young couples have resigned themselves to the notion that the future is bleak and dire that they are opting not to have children, out of concern that they would be bringing them into a lose lose situation. Can’t say I blame them. There ARE some good paying positions that don’t require a degree (like air traffic controller) but those still require some highly specialized training that could still put the person in serious debt. The simple fact is that we need to really change our idea of the American Dream and basically downsize it.
bob dorn says
Everything I’ve read on this subject misses the point that college is supposed to broaden, enlighten and awaken. Even college presidents are approaching this question as a financial transaction. This apparent groundswell of anger and mistaken notion that money is the sole reason for gaining an education may have the unintended consequence of chasing greedheads and the poorly motivated out of the universities. That would be good for the rest of us, who believe knowledge is its own reward.
Not if it’s going to put you in debt that you will spend the rest of your life paying off then no it’s NOT worth it. I know that’s not the case for all but for many it is.
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says
I’m with Bob Dorn on this: “college is supposed to broaden, enlighten and awaken.” Parents especially need to get on board with this notion rather than poisoning the well by equating a kid’s college education with lucrative employment. Education is for becoming educated. Work comes later.
When a 17-year-old kid attends a genuine institution of higher learning for four years — not a Bridgepoint or the University of Phoenix — and majors in a serious subject that speaks to her — that she loves for its own sake — and where she meets and becomes friends with people who have diverse interests and come from places other than her own bailiwick — then she is prepared to begin to live her adult life. (One needn’t go to Harvard to rack up six-figure debt. In fact these days Harvard more closely resembles what John Lawrence inveighs against.)
But living away from home at school, being open and willing to explore new fields, being diligent and committed to schoolwork, and having a modicum of self-protective savvy are essential qualities to getting to a new and better place as a young adult.
(This assumes that the freshman dorms are not an Animal House of alcohol, drugs and sex that drives you off-campus — an experience a recent female freshman at San Diego State shyly described to me. This issue, a subject for another time perhaps, is never mentioned by universities until there is some public relations disaster. Shame on them.)
But if our student has been lucky enough to have a good academic experience at college these days, she may get out and find satisfying work that she loves, or find work that just pays the bills, or face unemployment because the economy is weak.
School and work do not and need not directly compute, but the grad will have an engaged mind that’s been developed to pursue interesting ideas and adapt them to future possibilities. And while she’s waiting for a break, there are languages to be learned and Great Books to be read. She is no one’s serf or lackey; she is her own person.
None of this applies to the special-case self-starters and auto-didacts. If their drive doesn’t pan out, they can always go to community college for specific training geared to their area of interest. And they can always take a humanities class if the spirit moves.
John Lawrence says
Bob and Frances: Regarding ““college is supposed to broaden, enlighten and awaken” this is nice but it’s not worth going into a $100,000. debt. As far as studying foreign languages and reading Great Books, you don’t need college to do that. I studied French for two years on my own and at community college at night before I went to France. Ditto for German. I never took a language in college. I read the complete series “The Story of Civilization” by Will and Ariel Durant outside of college. I took a course from the Manhattan Museum of Art outside of college. My feeling is that, if a person is motivated to learn about Western Civilization including art, history and culture they can do it on their own. If they’re not motivated to do it on their own, they’re better off pusuing whatever their other interests are. Having a college professor shove stuff that it’s nice to learn down your throat results in a near zero learning experience as far as I’m concerned. Most of it is forgotten as soon as the final is over.
But on the other hand, if you or your parents can pay the $100,000. up front for room, board, books and tuition, then college might result in a pleasant and broadening learning experience.
Frances O'Neill Zimmerman says
If your main point is that college is not worth going into $100,000 of crushing debt, John, then I entirely agree with you. Any such system has been entirely subverted from its mission to prepare truly “educated” men and women as opposed to your drones and “serfs.” (This is undoubtedly one reason that Harvard grads, even now, wave paper money at Commencement exercises and why so many still go to work on Wall Street.)
Such an out-of- whack expensive system not only threatens broad democratic access to higher education but also to middle class American life. We must have affordable higher education and educated people who can think and reason if we are to keep democracy alive. College should not be a luxury in the United States, and we should keep an eagle eye out for escalating student tuition and fees and administrators’ six-figure salaries and those private online scam operations that live off federal student loan defaults.
I was stunned to learn that the great African-American playwright August Wilson dropped out of his Los Angeles junior high school: I took that as an indictment of a too-rigid public school system. But most people are not geniuses like August Wilson, nor are they self-starters such as you describe, though this country still offers an open door to post-secondary education for those who decide to attend college at a later age.
At its best, college offers four years in a young person’s life to explore the possibilities of learning broadly and deeply and pursuing new and different interests: college is the foundation for a lifetime of intellectual personal choices, including participatory democracy. It is a one-time chance to participate in a community of educated men and women whose focus is ideas, not “product” or money or social advancement. Neither is college a direct way-station to specific work, though with luck and a good economy, meaningful work follows college years.
College is not about professors “shoving stuff down your throat,” and what you’ve forgotten: it’s about what you’ve learned from the people you’ve met along the way and what you remember from scholars who taught in their chosen academic field.
John Lawrence says
Frances, I agree with most of what you said. What you are describing is the educational system which exists today in Europe which is entirely free up to and including post-doc work. I think this is true in India and China too. No wonder they are outcompeting us! As you correctly point out, most high achieving college grdauates today head directly for Wall Street because they pay more than any other employer.
It wasn’t always so. When I attended UCSD in the late 60s, I was paid to go to school. I had a research assistantship which they were practically giving away at the time. There was no tuition, and I complainecd about a $73. “incidental fee.” I feel almost guilty now. One of my fellow graduate students took flying lessons with the money he made as a student. Summer jobs were plentiful at professional wages. It was more or less the same story at the other colleges/universities I attended. As a consequence, my college education cost my parents absolutely nothing, not even room and board. It was easy to work your way through school in those days. Going into debt to get a college education was unheard of.
But even in those days it depended on what field you were in as to whether you got the kind of benefits that you describe. In the humanities, where they took you under their wing, this was true. In the sciences/math/engineering, where they kicked you out of the nest to see if you could fly, it was much more dog eat dog.
The private colleges like University of Phoenix are encouraging students to take out huge student loans. Their admission officers are basically salespeople. Many of these students never get their degrees, but are still stuck with huge debts.
Anna Daniels says
I have been working on a response to this article for a few days now. Fran- you said it much better than I could have. John- I think your response to Fran’s comments are nuanced and revelatory in their scope. The conversation here has been thought provoking.
My college experience, circa 1968-71 was an investment in my life as a thinking, engaged and informed human being. This speaks to the value of my solid liberal arts education. That is very different than defining it solely in terms of investment in a career which is defined in terms of cost/benefit. Because of the high debt incurred now to get an education, the cost/benefit analysis has eclipsed the discussion about value. Clearly we need to do something about the tuition costs at our public institutions of higher learning. When I moved to California, tuition at these institutions was free. Reagan changed all that- remember? UCSD now receives less that 15% of its budget from state funds.
John Lawrence says
Anna, I was at UCSD in the same era – 1967-1970 – and, yes, tuition was free, assistantships were plentiful and life was good. Yes, Ronald Reagan ended all that. It’s a whole different philosophy today. People coming out with a degree in the humanities today are basically graduating into unemployment or a job at McDonald’s or Starbucks. This forces one into the position of considering what’s more important – a roof over one’s head and a meal on the table or being an educated person.