The combination of rising tuition, bulging debt burdens, and a recovering job market have lead many people to the wrong conclusion that college isn’t worth it. Every few weeks there’s a new report out that seems to question the value of college. This week it’s the Wall Street Journal reporting about MBAs. Back in December it was law school. And all the time various people are either talking or writing about it. A famous venture capitalist will even pay you not to go to college.
For those that believe college may not be worth it anymore there’s no shortage of statistics showing you don’t need a degree to be successful. This is countered with the presentment of unemployment rates for those with a degree compared to those that don’t. Clearly the degree plays some kind of factor.
So what’s the final answer then? I hate to say it but it’s complicated. But that is something that doesn’t get enough air time when people start talking about the value of college. So let’s start with the value. We know that college grads have lower unemployment rates and higher pay on average. The same applies to grad school, especially the professional schools. However:
Not all degrees are created equal: There’s a big difference between getting a nursing degree and an art history degree (sorry art historians). Not only are RNs directly needed in the workforce immediately, but as students they chose a program that focuses on workforce training. There’s nothing wrong with studying art, but in terms of preparation for working life there’s less return on the investment of college.
Not all colleges are equal: The WSJ article on MBAs and countless others about the law school bubble (see here and here) usually talk less about the tiering system within colleges. Some schools are simply more valuable than others. A bachelor’s in finance from Wharton is worth significantly more than the same degree from South Central Louisiana State University
It’s about the person: It is incredibly hard to assess the value of of an education. How much is a degree at the University of Michigan worth? Larry Page, co founder of Google probably thinks it’s worth a lot. That frat dude that drank his way through college and hasn’t held a job longer than 5 months since graduation might think differently. But they had the same opportunities. Meanwhile someone that went to Washtenaw Community College down the street is killing it as a technology consultant.
The question is not about whether college is worth it. It’s whether you spend the years of 18-24 learning skills that add value for a lifetime. College can do that. For those that take advantage of the opportunities that colleges provide, it’s impossible to quantify how enriching it can be; no matter how much it costs. It’s not necessary of course. Many people do just fine without college. But they spent that time transitioning from child to adult learning the skills that made them useful in the economy.
College may be the best possible path for most people that currently do go to college. That hasn’t changed and it won’t any time soon. But the simple question of whether college is worth it is just that: too simple.