Is college still worth it? I’m hearing this question quite a bit lately and it’s funny there seem to be two quite opposite campus in agreement on the answer that college is no longer worth it. On one side is a conservative mindset that has developed in our country that is heavily anti-intellectual. They don’t believe college is worth it anymore for a number of reasons. First, they believe that all colleges have become bastions of liberal indoctrination that no longer are interested in educating people but of convincing students of a particular political agenda. Second, they correctly point to the rising costs of college tuition as well as increasing levels of student loan debt. They take all of these things, weave them together messily and claim that students don’t need college because it does more harm than good.
The second camp is a much more interesting position. This is the hooray for the working man camp. The idea, correctly so, that blue collar workers have not gotten the respect they deserve. This is true, we’ve seen this in education where for a span of almost twenty years there was a strong movement in both K-12 and higher education away from career education. Happily, over the last fifteen years or so the pendulum has swung the other way. With a greater focus politically on bringing manufacturing back to the United States, a recognition of the need for workforce training for professions like nursing, construction and welding resources have begun to return. In California where I work, about seven years the Strong Workforce Program initiative was implemented. This has been an incredibly strong commitment system wide in the California Community College System, the largest education system on earth, to provide significant and ongoing resources for career education programs.
The hooray for the working man camp was, and still is, backed by conservative political movements but has also become a rather hip opinion. This camp puts forth that students don’t need four-year liberal arts education, what they need is focused job training to get into the workforce as quickly as possible with as little debt as possible. The tech sector is also starting to reinforce this position by looking for pathways into the tech workforce via training credentials like badging to demonstrate mastered skill sets. In California, this approach has been taken on by the California Community College’s experimental fully online college Calbright. Calbright operates on a competency based education model targeting college dropouts and working adults who have never attended college. Most of the programs are self-paced, short-term and focus on industry informed skill development and badging instead of certificates and degrees. Unfortunately so far, this experiment has not been very successful.
Of course the answer to the question is college worth it is not a simple answer. And that of course is the problem when politics and political opinion is involved. You see politics works best when you can provide quick answers and short soundbites that reinforce your position. The best type of soundbite has some kernel of truth buried within them while supporting your position. So there is some truth to the soundbites that both camps use. But let’s look a little deeper and address the complexity in a more honest way.
Let’s start with the old conservative trope that colleges exist for the purpose of liberal indoctrination. First off the research, doesn’t back this idea up. Reading the article linked in the previous sentence what you see is that as most politicians do, the politicians using this trope are cherry picking pieces of data without the accompanying context and or ignoring other contrary data in the same sources. Of course, this is what politicians do, it’s one of the reasons that it is so important for educators to help students develop critical thinking skills.
Where the first camp has an excellent point is when they talk about the rising costs college tuition, particularly at the four year university and public college level. Data shows that college costs have been rising at five times the rate of inflation. Does this mean that college is not worth the financial sacrifice, well again, this is a complicated answer. College is a consumer product, and as such, buyers need to make responsible decisions about the product they purchase. This goes for the taking of student loans as well, as I’ve talked about in my recent piece, the truth about student loans. The fact is, if as a consumer and student, you decide to spent $25,000 a year over four years to get a bachelor’s degree to work in a field with a starting salary of $19,000 a year, it’s not. And more so, if you can’t afford that cost and have to take $70,000 in student loans to accomplish that degree, you’ve made a bad decision. These are the types of examples politicians love to trot out when saying college is not worth the cost.
But let’s look at other scenarios. Students who attend public state colleges often don’t amass more than $18 – 28,000 in debt. Students who attend community college, where average cost on paper seems to be about $3700 per year, but actually given many state support programs is closer to zero, attending community college significantly reduces the total debt incurred while earning a bachelor’s degree. So students utilizing this pathway can often cut the average undergraduate debt load in half. For students making careful and financially sound decisions about attending college they could relatively easily emerge with $20,000 or less in student loan debt. They can get up to 30 years to repay the loans if they are federal student loans. The important question becomes then, what is your return on investment as a student? More plainly said, how much more will I earn for going $20,000 in debt. Data from 2019 estimates that in terms of lifetime earnings, a person with a bachelor’s degree, over their lifetime, will make approximate $2.2 million more dollars than a person with just a high school diploma and with an associates degree the number is $1.7 million dollars. It would seem then, when viewed over a lifetime, there is a significant return on investment for gaining a college degree. Of course, this does put some responsibility on the student for making wise decisions about their education. This is also a reason that sound advice about majors and career advice is so important to students both as they enter and move through their educational pathway.
The second camp, the hooray for the blue collar worker camp also makes some valid points. There are a large number of career focused community college and trade school programs for student to engage that will allow them, in a much shorter period of time, to enter the workforce. Automotive technician, Cosmetology, Welding, electric lineman and many other programs can provide this type of training. Some of it can even be quite well paying, one of my favorite programs is the Mechatronics Program at Sierra College that within two-years often turns out students making $70,000 per year or more. So there certainly are excellent, low debt, public college pathways for students to quickly enter the workforce.
However, there is a point I’d like to make about career training pathways. At times we see students who go through these pathways not getting encouraged to complete a full associates degree. They are encouraged to get their technical training certificate that allows employment and/or licensure, without completing the additional general education coursework that leads to an Associate’s Degree. The issue here for me is twofold. First, often the lack of a degree can be a hindrance later on to these folks moving onto management and other higher paying position in their chosen career pathway because a degree is required. Secondly, and I think this is critical to the biggest benefit of higher education, is the expansion of a persons mind and experience.
Is it really important to take college level general education coursework? I answer this with an emphatic yes. I have always believed an important part of a person’s maturation includes having varied and new experiences. Taking general education courses expands your view of the world, allows you to see things from new perspectives, and exposes you to new and different people and ideas. All of this while also helping you developing your verbal and writing skills. And most importantly of all, these courses make you more interesting at cocktail parties.
So is college still worth it? I think the answer is a resounding yes. A college education, whether at the technical training, Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree level is worth it for two simple reasons. First, it will lead to higher salaries throughout a person’s life and of course a higher standard of living for them and their family. There is also a secondary benefit in that the children of college graduates are more likely to graduate from both high school and college as well causing and inter-generational gain in a family’s standard of living. Finally, the added benefits of broadening a person’s experience and developing critical thinking and learning skills, provide the ability for a person to be a lifelong learner who is in a better position to respond to the changing conditions of work and life.
So yes, college is worth it, as long as you treat it like any other consumer product and choose wisely.