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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  • Ken Mitchell

    The banner advertisement at the top of this article answers the question, and gives the lie to your post. Dwyer Home Comfort, plumbing, heating, A/C, it says, and I can almost guarantee that the employees didn’t need college degrees and probably make pretty good money. SOMEBODY has to fix the cars, repair the plumbing, install heating and A/C systems, build the houses and apartments – and none of those jobs require a degree. Technical schools and trade schools, yes – but the idea that EVERYBODY should go to a 4-year “liberal arts” college is fallacious.

    In fact, if high schools were doing their jobs properly, very few people would “need” college degrees. A high school diploma SHOULD indicate that you can read, write, and do at least basic math – and yet, far too many HS graduates have no salable skills at all. If they could at least READ, they’d be able to teach themselves – but too many schools produce “graduates” who can’t read anything more complex than a comic book.

    • Mary123s

      MOOCs are a joke…

      • M_Becker

        Heh. And, have you ever taken a MOOC class?

        MOOCs are designed to offer information to a motivated class of student. They are actually quite effective at doing that. They are being criticized by the higher ed tenure track establishment because they represent a move away from not just ground campuses but the accreditation model as well.

        If you want a joke, take a look at your state university’s catalog of majors and then courses. A very substantial percentage of majors are utterly worthless beyond indoctrinating students in a political POV. Any major or department containing the word “studies” or ending with “ism” is nothing more than a ticket to a huge student loan balance and unemployment outside of teaching the same drivel at the university level.

        The whole structure of higher education has become a bad joke as well. Tuition has increased eight times faster than the standard of living in the last 30 years and administration has grown almost as fast. In 1994 the University of California system had one administrator for three classroom instructors. Today it’s slightly more than one administrator for each classroom instructor. The UC system is not unusual.

        As with the author of the original post, I would offer similar advice. On the subject of bad jokes in higher education, go look in a mirror.

  • M_Becker

    “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.”

    Absolute, utter hogwash. Everyone should not go to college and it should not be available to everyone. It should be available to those who are academically qualified to go. Academically qualified, not to provide “diversity” or in the hope of an “equal outcome”.

    When you start admitting those who are academically unqualified, as colleges have been doing for 30 years and in increasing numbers, the academic rigor of the institution goes down, and it goes down quickly. Those in college today get significantly higher grades than their counterparts from 30 years ago and they spend about 30% less time in class and studying. The problem right now is that a Bachelors degree is roughly the equivalent in the market place with a HS diploma of 30 years ago.

    College is not a place to acquire “maturity”, if that’s what you’re looking for work at becoming a United States Marine. College is a place to acquire an education that will help you in a professional field. “Studies” like feminism, minority of the day, etc are not academically rigorous and prepare one to go to graduate school so they can teach others in the same drivel.

    The problem with higher education? Look in the mirror.

    • Banned_by_KBTX

      College is not a place to acquire “maturity”, if that’s what you’re looking for work at becoming a United States Marine.

      Indeed. I teach at a community college, and a surprising number of my colleagues are emotionally immature. They cannot handle disagreement and treat opposing views as crimes against humanity. Every perceived slight (especially those involving hot-button political issues) becomes an excuse for angry confrontation, witch hunts, forced confessions, and destroyed careers. Many of these individuals could not possible survive in a work environment where they had to get along with people who hold with political and religious views that differ from their own. Real diversity terrifies them.

      And – let’s be honest – there are those professors and administrators who are stark-staring nuts. Some schools are hip-deep in them (talk about the inmates running the asylum!). If you want to find a major institution where crackpot theories (1% vs. 99%; war on women; 9/11 Trutherism; etc.) are cooked up and disseminated at taxpayer/parent expense, look no further than many colleges and universities. “Academic freedom” means the obligation to swear unconditional fealty to the progressive political movement.

    • laughnow

      I have both a BSEE and MBA. With the exception of a few minor technical skills, both were a waste of time and money.

      • M_Becker

        I earned a hybrid engineering degree 45 years ago. I actually learned how to think logically and write well, it’s served me well every day. The MBA was a total waste of time, I learned exactly nothing and acquired no new skills.

        In the intervening years, I’ve been an M&A executive and business owner. I’ve been successful in four unique industries. Over that time I’ve conducted a survey of executives I know personally, two questions: 1-You’ve got an MBA, right? 2-In the process of getting your MBA did you learn anything worthwhile?

        The survey included about 200 executives and about half graduated from a “Top 10” school (Harvard, Tuck, Wharton, Kellogg, Stanford, etc) and I have yet to receive a “Yes” answer to #2.

        As my undergrad advisor told me – he was a Stanford grad – “A top 10 school will give you a hell of a Rolodex. Other than that, if you can buy it and skip the classes, buy it.”

        • JustMeAgain

          “A top 10 school will give you a hell of a Rolodex. Other than that, if you can buy it and skip the classes, buy it.” That worked well for George W. Bush, so he was right there.

          • M_Becker

            It’s worked pretty well for all the top 10 grads I know. Oh, and it worked well for John Kerry too. He managed to connect with and marry two women worth well over $100MM.

  • George Gamble

    This is an extremely self-serving article given the author. There are many people who should not be going to college but who are pushed by the “all should” type mentality. They then borrow tens of thousands of dollars (or much more) to do what everyone should be doing (and to support professor and administrator salaries) only to find they are deeply in debt and they were better off not going to college and instead learning a vocation and earning a decent living.

    I look around me and My sister in law is a policewoman and her husband is a fireman. My friend is an electrician. Another is a fisherman. All own their homes, have families and are comfortably middle-class (the policewoman/fireman family are significantly better off as they combine for $220k+ before benefits). My college friends? Not so well. 50% are doing well, the other 50% are having trouble making ends meet (2 filed for bankruptcy partly because of huge law and grad school debt – of course all their debts were dismissed except for the school loans).

    One step to making things more sane is if we stopped the pretense that everyone should attend college. The truth is that many shouldn’t and the thing that scares administrators and professors is that many won’t which will result in layoffs and lower paydays for those in the profession of higher education.

    • gtwreck

      Bingo. The lowering of standards is the other reason for lack of value to a college degree. Yes I went to college and post graduate but that was 50 years ago. I have worked with todays PhDs that would have trouble punching their way out of a Brown Paper bag.

  • The Sanity Inspector

    A way must be found to break higher education’s chokehold on entry into the middle class, and a way must be found to make a high school degree worth something again.

    • M_Becker

      1. Outlaw teacher’s unions. Unions are one of the biggest hurdles to K-12 education quality.
      2. Get back to basics in K-12. Teach phonics, no student moves to 2nd grade unless they can read. Teach writing, teach western civilization. Require math competency.
      3. Shut down the flow of federal money to K-12.
      4. Stop Common Core.

      • Guest

        Outlaw teacher unions? That’s very totalitarian of you. Do you have the same complaints about the overinflated salaries of college administrators?
        The hurdles to education in this country involve ignorant people breeding (that would be of all social classes, btw) and the new rich who are determined to put up every obstacle they can to keep kids from getting a good education because they don’t like critical thinking (which equals competition down the road for them and theirs).
        And politicians do their bidding every inch of the way.
        The only effective way there’s going to be any education in this country is when yuppie bores quit convincing themselves their kids are Einsteins when they can barely pronounce their names.

        • M_Becker

          As a matter of fact, I do.

          Bottom line is simple. Colleges are offering absolutely crap majors (victim’s studies, etal) at a very high cost that offer no return, leaving the student with a huge loan balance. I would opt to make student loans dischargable in BK and go after the college for the balance. That way they’re on the hook for the value of their product.

          As far as your stupid little rant about teach unions, I hold the same position that FDR held. They should not have the right to collective bargaining because they’re effectively bargaining against the people who they’re paying to elect. Huge conflict of interest.

          With respect to administrators, in the Univ of CA system about 20 years ago there was one admin for three classroom teachers. Today, a little more than one to one. Not only are they grossly overpaid, there’s about three times more (at a minimum) than there should be.

  • richard40

    College used to be a good investment, when only about 25% of the country had college degrees, and college costs were still reasonable. But now, when only 25% of the jobs require college, and almost 60% of the country is going to college, it is much less of a good investment, especially with soaring costs. Even if it turns out that college leads to 25% higher lifetime earnings, when you balance that against having to payoff 100K of college loans, it is still not clear. Especially since the higher earnings of college grads may be due as much to college grads being smarter, more ambitious, or having families with better connections, than it is to the college degree. I certainly see no reason why more than 50% of our population should have college degrees. If you have a kid that is not great at academics, it might be better to pay to send them to a blue collar technical program, in plumbing, electrician, truck driving, etc, and then put the rest you save from not paying for college into an income producing trust fund, or perhaps after they learn a skill, you could buy them a share of an existing small business using that skill.

  • BAW

    Mike Rowe, the Dirty Jobs guy makes more sense and has better career advice than your average “educator.”