Monday, June 27, 2011
Yes, College is Worth It
Would you take the deal?
The flavor of the month on the interwebs is the suggestion that college is not worth the trouble. The usual critique combines concern about student loans, academic rigor and the lack thereof, the job market and relative lack thereof, and general distaste for higher education as a system. Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, has made headlines by offering high-achieving high school students a pile of cash to stay out of college for at least two years, and to use that cash to start their own businesses. He’s trying to prove that it’s all about animal spirits, rather than skills.
Those who oppose the flavor of the month have all manner of reasons. David Leonhardt did a nice summary of some of them in the New York Times yesterday, noting that while incomes for college grads haven’t risen as quickly as they once did, incomes for high school grads have dropped sharply. Given a choice between “slowly improving” and “going to hell in a handbasket,” one could be forgiven for choosing the former.
From a strictly economic perspective, it’s counterintuitive to suggest that the way to survive a nasty recession is to hit the job market with nothing more than a high school diploma. Yes, it’s possible to find people who can make that work, and that’s great, but the odds are tough. And with the desiccation of the unionized industrial sector that once made it possible to support a middle-class family without a degree, options that may have made sense fifty years ago just don’t now. If anything, I’d suggest that this is the worst time in American history to hit the job market without a college degree. The real story is economic polarization, not anything colleges do or don’t do.
The elements of truth in the critique don’t require junking higher education; they just require knowing how to play the game. Yes, student loan burdens are a real problem. To my mind, that suggests that the nothing-special, private, high-cost, tuition-driven colleges are in for a rough ride, and the for-profits may have to watch their step. But using the cost of a year at Bennington to suggest that a community college is a waste of money is just sloppy reasoning. The costs are an order of magnitude apart. Most public colleges and universities -- even the ones with national reputations -- are still dramatically cheaper than their private counterparts for those who live in-state.
One way to test the truth of the proposition that college isn’t worth it is to observe elite behavior. Are applications to Stanford dropping? Is Harvard going begging? Are the Fortune 500 recruiting at public high schools across America?
I didn’t think so.
The whole enterprise just smells to me like the latest variation on “let’s privatize Social Security” or “let’s replace Medicare with vouchers.” It’s the wealthy and their worshippers sloughing off any social obligation, basically dropping the ladder behind them. If that weren’t the case, if they actually believed what they said, I’d expect to see the best and brightest from Choate and Philips Exeter eschewing college and doing startups or joining the military instead. Um, no.
Obviously, the virtues of college go beyond the strictly economic. I’m shying away from that argument, since it can be applied to just about anything.
And I’ll draw a distinction between “college is for everyone,” which I don’t believe, and “college should be an option for everyone,” which I do. The latter suggests that some folks will never take the option, and that’s fine. And some people who are perfectly capable of benefiting from college may not be capable at 18; they may need to live some life first, and come back with a sense of purpose. That’s fair.
But I’m wary of elites telling teenagers to avoid education for their own good. If they actually believed that, why do those same elites keep sending their own kids to college?
I dropped out of college when I was 18, and work became my focus. I thought I would be different and special - what teenager doesn't see herself as an up-and-coming ball of potential - but in reality, I ended up in the food service industry for a while.
I eventually migrated to admin assistant jobs, and also started slowly earning my college degree, one course at a time. (Whatever I could afford.) By the end, I was so anxious to get the damn thing done that after being promoted up from an admin role, I actually took a step back and returned to the admin life so I could concentrate more effectively on school.
And THAT is the decision I'd change. Since then, it's been a nightmare trying to claw my way back out of the secretarial pool even though I do now have a college degree. The degree is not what gets me my jobs - my experience is what gets me my jobs, and my experience screams "really good administrative assistant."
So actually, a college degree hasn't done much for me, career-wise. The job I'm doing now, with the degree, is not all that different from the jobs I had before the degree. But I still would not take it back. Not for a minute. I would just do it differently - take the standard four year track if I could, rather than get ten years of administrative assistant jobs on my resume.
Wealthy people who have done nothing but benefit from their own educations but still delight in the "useless" nature of college...something has to be in it for them. The fewer college graduates, the fewer competitors for their offspring in a job hunt in this bad economy, right?
The logical flaws in this are so large that it's hard to know where to start, and let's also recognize that ninety-nine percent of the population will lose out, because somebody has to. What happens to them? "Fuck them! They're not super-awesome, like me! Let 'em wash my car!" Which is a great way to hobble an economy.
Everybody thinks they're gonna be Wilt Chamberlain. Nobody likes to realize that almost everyone is gonna have to be the towel boy.
the idea that some 18 year old kid is going to be able to come up with a product and run a legitimate business is a huge leap of faith. i couldn't have done it. i didn't know a thing about business. i even tried to run my own business when i got out of college, and i crashed and burned.
most people have to get a sizable loan to start their business. is this really much different than a student loan?
sending your kid to harvard doesn't make sense to most of us. but my state school costs around $8k-$10k per year in tuition. seems reasonable to me considering the difference in my salary. with the abundance of AP classes and partnerships with votechs and CCs, it is easy to get the first year of college by the time you graduate high school. you just have to get kids to see the forest from the trees, and to work hard throughout high school.
something to be said about revolutionizing college. why i had to spend thousands of dollars learning about the lakota indians, pre-revolutionary england, anthropology, and the relationship between pop-culture and philosophy, i still don't understand. say what you want about being 'well rounded', but i can't remember a damn thing from those classes, and all they did was take up time and cost money.
However, one thing I'd like to point out is that when talking about the costs of college/uni these days, I think may observers either don't realize or quite understand the monetary costs of going to some schools. In the US, you can easily end up with a six-figure loans, attached with double-digit interest rates. Some loans require payment immediately after classes end, and have no option to declare bankruptcy (As a Canadian, these facts floor me). Going to grad school/law school/MBA (even med school in some cases) compounds these costs. It's cheaper now to own a home than to attend some colleges, by a fair margin, which should give people pause.
But the main problem is that students have already taken the plunge into such scenarios. They're a real possibility they'll be financially crippled for a long time because of a "mistake" and making "bad decisions". This is the aspect that needs to change, and some people are rightfully pointing this out.
For that purpose, the uppermost-tier schools are still a critical destination for the children of the affluent. Many of your classmates will get a job in the family business, or get hired into a firm on the strength of their personal connections ("sure I know X - he shares a slip at the marina with my father and let me crew on his boat for a couple summers"). Knowing these people (and being known by them), knowing how to move in their circles, is what matters about that prestigious degree - not knowing the differences between Tolstoy and Shakespeare.
For anyone who cannot get into such a school, however, the situation is fundamentally different. Flagship U. isn't likely to introduce you to more then one future Senator or fast-track Senior Partner, so the connections you can forge will be of a different type (valuable yes, but in a different sphere). Absent those connections, the value of the school becomes limited to what can it teach, and what direct benefits can it supply. With those foci, the equation looks very different, and it could become completely rational to say the degree is not valuable enough to justify the cost. The important point to remember, and to publicize, is that there are two broad exceptions: if the degree is from one of those top-tier schools (because the value comes from an entirely different area); and if the degree is sufficiently affordable as it would be from a Community College.
I have just finished helping my 4 kids finish their undergraduate degrees. One got into a doctoral program, one moved to a foreign country to find a job (which has worked out well), one has been unemployed for 3 years, and the last one, who graduated a year ago, I've hired at about minimum wage because he also could not even get interviews, let alone job offers. These two have moved back home.
Even the lucky ones who get jobs are paid a very small fraction of the debt they incurred to become edjamakaited. Higher education is today priced far higher than its value, and that price has to come way down. It may take a temporary "strike" by consumers to get that message across to the powers that be.
This is what you get when you treat the economy like a game of musical chairs, when you say "screw economic growth" and go for increasing regulation, increasing taxes, and redistributing wealth instead. You get stagnation and job destruction.
You can't educate your way out of it.
That's the nutshell, right there. 20 years ago an anthropology professor, of Brazilian extraction, said to me "I think we are heading, in this country, toward a 3rd-world social organization: an ownership class and a service class.
I am saddened to look back and see just how right he was.
being young (mid 20s) & still fairly social, i have a near 1:1 ratio on friends with a degree & without one, and all have jobs. most have moved around the job market in the past 2 years (many just now finishing school). of all of them, the one who was without a job the longest has a BA in history and an MBA; he went 9 months without a job (he quit his old one). in the end, he was holding out for a job that paid more than what MBAs are making nowadays. i had a few friends get laid off, and they found jobs within a few months (it only took that long because they took their sweet time and enjoyed the time off).
all of my friends who don't have degrees have a job (all of them who aren't electing to be stay-at-home-moms), but the salary disparity from grads from non-grads is significant in my circle. still, none of them are unemployed. some make near minimum wage, but they all work. unemployed for 3 years is questionable to me. subway is always hiring, as is every other fast food joint.
i'm sorry, but a degree in history, education, music, accounting, or english isn't going to take you far these days. they are a dime a dozen. i understand the desire to 'do what you love', but there weren't many jobs out there for 'lifting weights and playing guitar', so i had to get a more relevant degree. i'd be amazed to hear that an EE grad can't find a job. but it doesn't suprise me that a philosophy major can't land a mid-level job. it's a harsh reality, but it's a true one.
dean dad had a post recently about justifying some degree choices to parents ('what can my child do with a degree in X?'). really, that subject is tied to this one. maybe the question isn't 'is college really worth it?' maybe the question should be 'is a degree in X really worth it?' or more specifically, 'is a degree in X really worth it if i want to live in location Y?'
Um - until parents decide that a) wealthy people need to pay more taxes or b) that they themselves are willing to vote for higher taxes, fees, and bonds the cost of higher ed is not going to come down. This isn't some mystical thing - it's simple math. The anti-tax rhetoric of the last 40 years has hamstrung us.
At the community college where I teach, students are charged $26 per credit. Assuming they take 16 credits per semester and amass enough credits to transfer in two years (four semesters), that's a grand total of $1664 for the first two years of college. Add in student health, activity and registration fees, and we're up to $1755. Now, not all students will decide to continue living at home with their parents, but it's reasonable to assume our model student would because this post is a response to people who think college MUST BE wildly expensive, and so we have to assume they're trying to be thrifty.
Then we move to the state university for two years. Full-time tuition is $5,688 per academic year (that's right - two whole semesters). And one can easily find a room to rent in a house or apartment nearby for $650 per month, including utilities. Now, this is in a reasonably large city, so housing is more expensive than it would be elsewhere. So multiply these figures to get two years of costs and you have $26,976.
Then you have books. Let's assume a student spends $300 per semester on books (which is reasonable for students buying used books online and taking advanage of book loan programs). That's another $2400.
So far we're looking at a total of $31,131 for a four year education. This does not include meals or transportation (which someone would have been paying for even without college, so I don't include that in the cost of the degree). And most students who are in a position to worry about the cost of college will receive at least some amount of financial aid in the form of grants. So in reality, the cost would be slightly lower than this. And if a student decides to live at home during the last two years of college, they save over a third of that when subtracting rent and adding in the gas for a commute.
So sure, if "home" is a small shack in the midwest and "some colleges" are Harvard and Yale, then one can assert that "it's cheaper now to own a home than to attend some colleges." But if you're trying to be thrifty, then your college education can be significantly less expensive and your loans can be manageable.
In response to Mikey G., yes college can definitely be that affordable - and cheaper too, if you work a lot during the summers and get a part-time job during the school year. I worked a TON in college and managed to pay off most of my schooling as I went. I spent a year paying off debts after college, but then I was free-and-clear. I didn't go to my "first-choice" school because it was too expensive. I went to a reasonably-priced regional state school and got, I believe, a very good education. Also, working throughout my college career got me experience to put on my resume
I am also surprised about Edmund's two unemployed kids. You can always get a minimum wage job in the service industry. Did they work during college?
I was bitter about this for a long time because I had visited a friend at Harvard and received a very positive impression, and I was convinced that it would be super fun (not to mention useful) to become friends with such smart, accomplished people. At the same time, I recognized that I had gotten a perfectly decent education yet wasn't saddled with student debt.
On the other hand, students at my SLAC get perks that I couldn't even imagine while in college - small science classes (mine had hundreds of students), senior seminars in which they learn critical reading of the primary literature, direct mentoring of undergraduate research projects by lab heads instead of grad students, writing-intensive courses in the major, department seminars geared towards an advanced undergraduate audience, etc. I felt the deficiencies in my own background keenly when I started grad school - on paper I looked fantastic, but excelling at multiple choice exams turned out not to be so useful anymore.
Conclusion? There are decent, affordable college educations to be had (even now). At the same time, the extra cost of a small liberal arts college education can come with significant opportunities if students take advantage of them.
I would never give up my college education, but being in academia, that's not surprising.
That being said, I find myself discouraging people from further education (usually graduate school) all the time. The reasons usually amount to "doing it because your parent's want you to is not a recipe for success" or "if you take a few years off and get some perspective on life, you will be more likely to finish and do well," or, sometimes sadly "you can't afford to take on the debt this will cost you unless you can a) choose a more lucrative major or b) really know that this is what you want to do with your life". These basically echo the arguments you stated.
Having taught at an open admissions state 4-year college (average ACT score was 19, I believe), plenty of undergrads should be discouraged as well. Perhaps not from further education, but definitely from further education right now. Lots of kids entering college these days simply aren't ready. They aren't ready to dedicate themselves to the task. They don't have the maturity to succeed. And they certainly aren't ready in math to pass college algebra (or in some cases the remedial pre-reqs to college algebra).
For these, and it's a pretty large percentage at non-selective colleges, college isn't worth it. At least right now.
Now I'm all for them trying. I'm also all for them quitting after a year. Why rack up 2 or 3 years of debt when you should have figured out you weren't ready after 1 or 2 semesters?
Finally, Mr. Dantes, please expound on the following: "Higher education is today priced far higher than its value, and that price has to come way down. It may take a temporary "strike" by consumers to get that message across to the powers that be."
As many commentators have already pointed out, only some institutions of high ed are really really expensive; students have a lot of (relatively) inexpensive options. But what should go to reduce the price? THe plusher dorms that many students and their parents demand? IT? No more computers? Athletics? Full-time faculty (the majority of whom - at least at our local university) make a little more than K-12 teachers)?
I'm a fan of the CEGEP system in Quebec for this reason. It seems a good way for students to find out if "right now" is the time for them or not, without first spending thousands on their freshman year at Middling State.
1) Opinion Leaders (national media, including the NY Times in particular) are ignorant of what exists to offer quality at an affordable price.
2) Perhaps what we really need is a sound course in basic economics and personal finance in high school. Many students and their parents and their grandparents are ignorant of the basic economic tradeoffs discussed in your article and the comments, not to mention the cost of interest.
3) It is a preposterous error to generalize from someone who is 1 in 10,000 coming out of HS and is also GIVEN startup capital to almost anyone else and certainly not the students I have helped become competent engineers.
4) There are graduate programs that are free (apart from opportunity costs) and there are those that incur massive debt. The worst of the latter might be law school. The best of the former might be engineering and the sciences.
On the question of "did it pay off for you", the payoff on the $8000 that my parents saved to fund my college years payed off handsomely. For cost reference, I am roughly a contemporary of Edmund Dantes (who I suspect might be Double Edmund of Firesign fame), and those resources (plus summer jobs and grad RA and TA jobs) got me through graduate school with a paid-for car and $1000 in the bank when I finished my PhD. I am not dumb enough to think that that era applies to today, but I am also smart enough to know that tax policy is only part of the reason why.
Everyone will immediately blame government and demand that taxes be increase to protect their livelihood as college employees. Ignoring the fact even higher tax then we pay now will result in less income as more and more companies close down and still more people end up unemployed.
I am 50 and in my life time I have literally seen taxes double. Double them again will leave people with absolutely nothing and ti still would leave government short on money as the fools we keep electing would just spend that much more.
I went to a state university with very reasonable tuition but lived on campus for three years which was pricey. Also, a change in major my first year ended up delaying my graduation a year because it was a radical change. Then, off to graduate school while my undergraduate loans were amassing interest charges. Graduate school required more loans (mostly for health insurance that wasn't covered the last year by the school).
Currently about a third of my (net) paycheck as a CC instructor (who is paid less than the area K-12 teachers BTW) goes to student loans. PLUS, I lost about 10 years of earning potential being in school. I don't count the part time job as night security at the dorm.
Knowing what I know now would I go to college? Yes, but as a packaging major and definitely no PhD.
I am 50 and in my life time I have literally seen taxes double.
Clinton's tax increases preceeded a rich period of economic growth. The idea that taxes poison the economy is not born out by the evidence of our recent experience.
Not sure what state you live in but I am in my late 30's and my taxes have increase from nothing (when my annual income was a $5,000 grad school stipend) to 60% of my total income. Never the less, I'm paying less percentagewise than my parents did in their mid thirties. Why? Pre-Prop 13 they had higher property taxes than I do. Pre-Regan they had higher income taxes than I do. They paid a higher percent capital gains tax than I do. Their income was not that much more than mine (in inflation adjusted dollars) The only tax that was lower was sales tax. And that difference in taxes is why our state's social services and infrastructure are circling the drain. It's also the reason they had $50/quarter tuition at the University of California - a deal if there ever was one. Those days are gone.
We have a relative who can't... of course, she doesn't have a GED/HS degree and has poor credit. So that kind of proves the point.
Some college is undoubtably worth it. Some is undoubtably not.
That said, I don't think you can judge anything from the behavior of the elites. Lots of people do Kumon for their preschoolers, but we don't really know it's any better than sesame street (actually, given that sesame street *is* driven by data, it might very well be better). The pressure to give your kids 'every advantage' is very high in some social groups... the actual merit of some of those supposed advantages... are not necessary demonstrated with hard evidence.
That aside, like many others, I'm surprised at the idea that university has to be expensive. I worked all the way through my university career, even holding down full-time hours at the aforementioned fabric store while finishing up my undergrad with straight As. I could have done it a bit cheaper, actually, that year, but my parents insisted I not live at home since they didn't want my crazy university lifestyle cramping their peaceful existence.
Of course, I was fortunate to not need to borrow so much: I had a good in-state university with a tuition discount due to my father's employment there and so on. That's privilege and I'm damned lucky, there.
Networking is a very important benefit of higher education (not the most important benefit, but an important one nonetheless). But networking is not really about meeting future senators or some other wealthy individual who will do things for you - it is just about using normal mundane connections to find fairly mundane opportunities, albeit ones that you might have otherwise missed.
Here are some examples: Back in the day, I had many friends who studied computer science and worked in the computer lab at the small rural college I attended. One of my friends graduated and got a job - a basic, entry level programming job in a large city 15 hours away. The job was quite decent, but not unusually so for the big city, although it was better than what was available near my directional U. Anyway, the employers liked the guy from my college, and when they were looking for additional employees, he recommended other friends from my school whom he knew. Eventually 10-15 grads from my school ended up working there (including an english major who was a technical writer); eventually more programmer from my uni worked there than from any other uni. This is a very important kind of networking, since the students who followed the first programmer ended up with better (or at least easier) career paths than would have otherwise been the case.
Case 2: The year after I graduated from law school I worked for an employer who was having difficulty finding good law clerks (a fulltime paralegal-like job usually filled by law students. The pay was maybe $15/hour, but it included full benefits. I asked a friend of mine from law school, who was very smart but who had failed the bar exam, whether she would be interested in the job. She was, so I recommended her to my boss, who ended up hiring her, and later hired her as an attorney when she did pass the bar.
Other examples - I learned about my present employer from a fellow classmate (and coworker); and I learned about the opening that became my job from a different classmate. And I've since recommended people to follow me to other positions (or, in one case, recommended that someone not be hired).
*This* is what networking is about, and why it is important. It's not the most important thing, since in all of these cases, only people I or others thought would be good were recommended. But I'm sure that there were other people who were also good who weren't recommended just because they didn't know anyone in the appropriate position.