How Valuable is College?

I read a very interesting piece in the New York Times today (“Americans are Losing Faith in the Value of College”), and it provided a fair bit of food for thought. Basically, it outlines how in the last decade, the importance people place on getting a college degree in America has plummeted. Some of this is because of ideologies (Republicans view college as far too liberal), but a whole lot of it is due to the fact that college is just so expensive in this country. Even at a small in-state university like mine, tuition runs around $10,000/year. That’s $40,000 if you graduate in 4 years, and it doesn’t count the other costs, like room and board and books. If you add all of that in, it goes up to $24,000/year. Then, if you subtract the amount of aid you typically get, it goes down to $14,000.

Are you seeing a problem here? Trying to figure out just how much college in America will cost is very difficult. It’s easy to get your head spun around with all the numbers, and that’s when you’re just looking at one university. Try comparing institutions, and it gets even worse. If you get into a Harvard or a Princeton, it actually might cost about the same as other colleges, as long as your parents don’t make too much money, because you’ll get a lot of aid. But if you get into a top tier but not tippy top tier, then it’s going to cost more, because there’s less aid.

You end up having to look at so many different factors, it’s no wonder many people just want to wash their hands of it and forgo college altogether.

For a long time, the adage was that if you went to college, you made a lot more money. That’s still generally true: salaries of college graduates are better than those of non-graduates. But that doesn’t take into account the loans students need to take out to get those degrees. The article points out that depending on your major, many colleges actually end up hurting graduates, not helping. If you’re going into engineering, you can afford the loans. If you get a degree in social work? Not so much.

Personally, I don’t think this situation is helped by the fact that many families and students seem to look at college as a four year break from life. They’ll avoid getting jobs, or else get jobs that don’t really pay much. They’ll rely on the loans to make ends meet, and when a student goes from living at home to living on their own, having control of all of that money can be hard to handle. It’s easy to have it start to feel like Monopoly money.

It isn’t like this in other countries. European nations typically foot the bill for most of college. In France and Germany, college is essentially free. Yes, that’s because taxes are paying for tuition for everyone, but the countries believe having an educated populace will help them all in the long run. It’s hard to argue with that. (Unless you’re obsessing over how liberal colleges are, I suppose. But when one of your main concerns is that people with information will start to get suspicious of your worldview, you might need a stronger worldview. But I won’t go into that in this post.)

When Tomas was getting ready to go to college, he had multiple offers. One place he was strongly considering was going to cost roughly $40,000/year after aid. Compare that to BYU, which costs about $13,500. (Both of those include room and board, which I think can be a bit misleading, honestly. I mean, you’re going to have live and eat somewhere, no matter what. That’s just the cost of life. You have a fair bit of control over how much it costs to live and eat, depending on where you live and what you eat . . .) Would a $160,000 education really be better than a $54,000 education? Since both schools had good engineering programs, the answer was . . . not really.

I have multiple degrees in the humanities. I’ve made it work, but Denisa and I also got through college (two undergrad degrees and three graduate degrees) without any debt. If we’d had tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, that would have made things much more difficult. (The average student load debt of a grad is about $28,000, which will cost about $300/month to pay off over ten years. If we had that average for each of those degrees, we’d have been paying $1,500/year. There’s no way we could have afforded that and a house and kids and a car.)

Ideally, college should cost less. In America, the status quo is set up in a way to make it more difficult for people with less to begin to make more. Free college tuition would solve that problem. But if we can’t even agree as a nation that having that as a goal is important, there’s no way we’ll ever get near that. Personally, I believe the anti-college sentiment in America will die down eventually. Unfortunately, by the time that happens, we’ll be quite far behind other countries in terms of the number of college graduates. It will take time to make up that gap. (The “America is Best at Everything” sentiment sadly doesn’t seem to apply to many areas where it would be fantastic if we really tried to be the best . . . )

What are your thoughts on all of this?

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