by: Douglas Grant
Essential reading for students pondering their future…
There was a time when if you were a high school student living in suburbia the likely question wasn’t whether you were going to college but rather where you were going to college. This time was known as the 1980s and ‘90s. Looking back on the 20th century we can see that a college degree wasn’t always considered the gateway to the middle class the way it is today. For many it was more of a passion for scholarly pursuits than anything else. Sometime in the 1970s, there was a palpable “shift from higher education for education’s sake to a need for pre-professional studies and a translation to work after graduation. For many, to be considered middle-class or to get a middle-class job required a college degree.”1 This is still a widely held belief today, but with severely augmented college tuition costs and America’s youth drowning in student loan debt, more and more prospective bachelors of the arts and sciences are turning their attention toward alternatives to the universities.
The decision of whether or not to attend college is complicated by the fact that not everyone agrees on what a college education should be. Whereas some see it as a necessary step toward transitioning into adulthood sagaciously, others see it as hands-on training for the real world beyond. According to the Pew Research Center, a 2011 study “showed 50% of college presidents said college is meant to ‘mature and grow intellectually,’ while 48% said college should ‘provide skills, knowledge and training to help… [students] succeed in the working world.’”2 This is quite a discrepancy in opinion when considering how costly college has become and how challenging the entry level world can be financially. The former notion might have held true back when students could change their majors two or three times and still generally land a well paying job somewhere in their chosen fields. As matters stand presently, it seems the latter opinion would be more beneficial to today’s graduates and employers alike. Forbes contributor Micha Kaufman found that “less than 40% of hiring managers felt that recent graduates were ready for jobs in their fields of study, citing a lack of key skills like leadership, organization, and personal finance. While university administrators largely felt they were sending skilled graduates out into the workforce, employers disagreed.”3 The traditional “college experience” may no longer mean what it once did. Still, there are those who believe that the value of a higher level education can’t be gauged monetarily. As one Gallup contributor asserts, if “we believe the only measure of success is salary, we fail. There is so much more value to college than what we are systematically measuring now. We ought to pay careful attention to these less traditional measures and the things that correlate with them.”4 Unfortunately, the grave reality is that with exponentially rising tuitions, many families can’t see past the dollar sign.
Considering tuition fees and the high interest student loans handed out in order to pay them, these out of control costs have “risen by almost five times the rate of inflation since 1983, and graduate salaries have been flat for much of the past decade.”5 To visualize this, imagine a line graph where the cost of tuition runs vertically in the tens of thousands of dollars, and the timespan of 1980 to present runs horizontally. What you would see would be a line representing tuition costs shoot up the graph at a sixty to eighty degree angle while the one representing median income flat-lines over the years. As of 2015, the “average cost of attending a top four-year college is rapidly approaching a quarter of a million dollars, and last year’s graduating class is the most indebted ever. The average 2014 graduate with student loans will have to pay back around $33,000. Even after adjusting for inflation, that’s nearly double the amount from only twenty years ago. As costs rise and median wages fall, how will the forty million Americans with student debt repay what they owe?”6 With the job market in the shape it’s currently in, students’ stress in accruing these debts is exacerbated by the fact that there is no guarantee of a lucrative job awaiting them after graduation. In short, the chances of a guaranteed return on investment have diminished drastically. More and more graduates are moving back in with their parents, putting off getting married and starting families, and “chasing jobs based on debt-repayment” rather than pursuing “careers that ignite their passion and build upon their natural talents.”7
So what are the options for high school graduates who choose to bypass the college route? Trade and vocational schools used to be considered contingency plans for high school students with unimpressive grades and SAT scores, but today the early acquisition of a particular skill set seems more and more like a pragmatic choice. Some young adults make the decision to immerse themselves in the workforce right out of high school, earning money rather than accumulating debt, betting on the fact that from the age of eighteen to twenty-two they will pick up the professional competence necessary to succeed in the competitive workforce. In some cases early twenty-somethings who show promise find themselves in the rare situation where their employer will actually foot the bill for their education, going under the assumption that these focused individuals will continue to grow professionally and heighten the productivity of the company or organization. Even if it seems that college graduates benefit from the fact that their degrees still serve as a “screening device for basically any job,”8, there are still plenty of them out there who are overqualified for the jobs they’re working and extremely anxious over their crushing student loan debt. Conversely, many young professionals without degrees have been working at their craft, procuring income, and hopefully working their way up the ladder in the four to six years it would take to complete graduation requirements. “It’s not that there’s no merit in the college experience, but higher education can insulate students from the real world as much as it prepares them. And you can seek out the equivalent, or better, connections and social experiences in the outside world. Before you devote four years and tens of thousands of dollars to a piece of paper, remember that the real value in life is pursuing your passions and discovering what truly drives you.”9 Community college has also become a more viable option for students who’ve been accepted to four-year universities but are daunted by what it will cost them in the long term. Working while enrolled in community college and then transferring to a four-year school after two years is perceived by many as a fiscally responsible decision that can greatly reduce the stress associated with falling into debt.
All of this may seem very pessimistic, and it certainly can be when we stop to examine the situation realistically. College is an opportunity that much of America’s youth should still aspire to, and there’s no denying that it vastly improves one’s chances at success in life. But we live in a different world now, and gargantuan student loans and their subsequent interest rates have made it so that the deck is stacked against college hopefuls. Attending college may still be the best path to the middle class, but if this surge in the cost of the experience continues unchecked, more and more teens may find that the stress that awaits them in their early adult years outweighs the limitless possibilities offered by campus life. Many universities may one day find that they don’t have the student bodies to support themselves, and then what? It’s hard to imagine accredited universities across the country going belly up, but stranger things have happened.
The variable in this equation is the price tag. Students must ask themselves what the best path is based on their individual circumstances. Today, college remains the safest bet in terms of attaining the American dream, yet today also marks an unprecedented time when more and more young people are excelling in their chosen professions having sidestepped collegiate pursuits. If you’re struggling with this dilemma, then do your research. Be in the know, and then make an informed decision.
- ProCon.org, from the article “Is a College Education Worth It?“ [↩]
- ProCon.org. [↩]
- Micha Kaufman, from the article “Is College Still Worth It?“ [↩]
- Brandon Busteed, from the article “Is College Worth It? That Depends.” [↩]
- The Economist, from the article “Is College Worth It.” [↩]
- Micah Kaufman. [↩]
- Micah Kaufman. [↩]
- Jeffrey J. Selingo, from the article “Is College Worth the Cost? Many Recent Graduates Don’t Think So.” [↩]
- Micha Kaufman. [↩]