by Pete Mazzaccaro

In the advanced composition class I teach at La Salle University, I always assign an essay towards the end of the semester on whether or not a college education is worth it.

The question is always met eagerly by the students in my class. They’re at the point when they’re beginning to consider the question themselves. Many are juniors or graduating seniors facing a lifetime of student loan repayments of more than $100,000. They’re considering a jump into the work force or a professionally mandated trip to graduate school for even more student loans.

How do you consider the return on investment? How valuable is the “college experience”? What are four years of good memories worth? And what impact does college really have on future earning potential?

Everywhere you look, there are cultural examples of great success despite a lack of college education. From Apple founder Steve Jobs and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg to athletes like Kobe Bryant or music mogul Jay-Z.

Those questions were raised a few years ago by Peter Thiel, a founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook. Thiel made headlines around the world when he insisted that there is a higher education bubble, that college was currently overvalued and that rising tuitions – not unlike housing prices – were based on faith and an unquestioned acceptance of their necessity. Thiel established a fund at the time that paid brilliant teens $100,000 a year for two years to run a startup tech company instead of going to school.

In one way, Thiel is right. For some of us, college really would be a waste of money. Some kids are already capable and mature by the time they’re 18 – certainly seasoned enough to thrive in a professional work environment I’ve had high school interns who are shockingly mature.

But how many of us have discovered our passions by the time we’re 18? Not many. I know I hadn’t. College certainly helped me find those things I did enjoy studying and then doing. And college absolutely made me better, not only at my craft but as a person as well.

Of course, those who agree with Thiel could argue that college – at tens of thousands of dollars a year – might not be the most economically sound way “to find yourself.” And that’s hard to argue against. If you took that money and put it into opening a business, you might be better off, especially if you have decided to find a frozen yogurt franchise rather than get your degree in early North American poetry written in Latin.

The fact remains,however, that for the rest of us, education is a fairly good measure of future success. The more education you have, the more you’re likely to earn. And the benefits extend beyond that. The more education you have, the more likely your children are to do well in school.

In the end, there’s no such thing as a sure bet. When you graduate from college, you won’t find employers handing you jobs. You’ll still need to work. And you’ll still need some luck. A college education for most of us is simply pretty sound investment despite rising costs.

So the question really shouldn’t be whether or not we should go to college. We all should. The question now should be: How do we make college affordable and available to everyone? That is a question that’s not so easy to answer.

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