Monday, June 27, 2011

Yes, College is Worth It

A quick thought experiment: if you were offered your tuition back -- minus any financial aid -- in return for surrendering your bachelor’s degree -- and any graduate degrees thereafter -- would you take it? Just to make things interesting, let’s say that along with returning the credentials, you also have to surrender any intellectual strength you built in college, along with any jobs that required college (and/or higher) degrees and the money you made in them. In return, you would get the money you would have made and experience you would have gained with the jobs you could have had right out of high school.

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?