May 16, 2011

The Evidence Piles Up Against Attending College

I'm not saying no one should go to college. Here's what I say in Thriving in the 21st Century:

You now know that the greatest amount of job growth is predicted in areas that don’t require college, that most kids who attend college don’t graduate in four years and many don’t graduate at all, that college is getting more expensive by the minute and that borrowing to pay those high college costs can have lifelong consequences. You also know now that having a college degree does not guarantee a high income…or any income at all.

Knowing these things, if you still think your child should go to college, please think hard about the following questions and whether you can answer “yes” to most of them:

• Is your child very intelligent and hardworking?

• Does your child have his/her heart set on a career that can only be accessed with a college diploma in hand?

• Of the careers that require at least some college education, is your child interested in one that offers the best return on the considerable college investment?

• Has your child thoroughly researched the chosen career, including talking to employers in the field to see what kind of education they require, and graduates in the chosen program to see if they’re a) employed and b) satisfied?

• Is your child’s choice of major/career one that’s likely to be in demand by employers? (Just because a college offers a major doesn’t necessarily mean that major is in demand by employers. There’s no correlation between number of majors and number of available jobs.)

• Is your child’s choice of major/career one that can be used in more than one industry? (Example: business administration)

• Is your child’s choice of major/career one that will be difficult or impossible to off-shore (as opposed to an area of study that’s currently being chosen by millions of smart young people from China and India)?

• Does your child’s chosen college or university have a reputation for academic excellence?

• Will your child be able to graduate debt-free? In an economy where wages are stagnating and periods of unemployment or time between careers is common, living debt-free will be a major asset as well as a source of emotional peace.

• If your child will need some student loan funding, does he or she plan to earn a degree that is likely to help them earn enough to pay back their debt within a few years (there are no guarantees)?

Regarding the last question, keep in mind that the debt will have to be paid back during a time when wages most likely will continue to stagnate. As a result, college loan repayments could eat up the lion’s share of your child’s future paychecks.

“Yes” answers to most of these questions indicate that you have a child who is motivated to go to college and willing to do what it takes to earn a degree in a field with good prospects for personal satisfaction as well as employment. If you don’t have enough money saved up for the entire four (or more) years, consider sending your child for two years of general education courses at a community college, after which your child can transfer to a four-year college. This is a time-honored plan, and for good reason: it saves a lot of money on tuition and room and board, plus you’ll send a more mature person off to college. Also, if your child’s chosen field of study will require graduate courses, the money you save by sending him/her to community college the first two years can help defray the cost of graduate studies later on.

If you can’t answer “yes” to most of the questions listed above, consider whether college is really the answer for your child. Try to ignore the common wisdom of the 20th century that was drummed into your head, the refrain that insisted that the only sure route to success requires a college diploma, because times have changed.
So I'm not against college, but I think it's clear that college is not for everyone or even for most people. Between its high cost and the questionable need for a degree for employment in areas of job growth, there's a lot of evidence on my side, and it's piling up:

More college grads are settling for low-wage jobs

More college grads are having trouble paying back their student loans

An economist argues that college is not a bubble, it's a "tax-subsidized failure"

See what I mean?


Sarah Says said...

I would tend to agree that college is not for everyone. There are some people who would be better off going to a technical school vs. a traditional 4-year university based on their personality type and career goals.

While graduating without debt is definitely the ideal, it's hard to expect that this is the reality for most prospective students, nor should I think that this is criteria for whether or not someone decides to go to college. Scholarships and grants can help supplement tuition costs, but often time there will be some student loan debt to attend to post-graduation.

Barbara Frank said...

In the new economy, the ratio of debt taken on to the likely payback of the chosen major is very important. So unless the chosen major is almost certain to result in steady, lucrative pay, I say avoid student debt like the plague! :)

Thanks for stopping by, SS.