The pundits are at it again. We are hearing discussion among some who question whether a college degree is worthwhile. As a college president I am obviously biased, but I believe the facts clearly demonstrate the value of a college education.
To be sure, the recent economic challenges have made it more difficult for some recent college graduates to find employment. Nevertheless, the evidence is clear. Over a lifetime, a college degree pays off. A recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce reported that an individual with a high school diploma can expect to earn $1.3 million over a lifetime while a person with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn $2.3 million, a 76% increase. Similarly, the lifetime earnings increase substantially for those with a master’s degree or a doctoral degree or a professional degree.
With respect to current unemployment statistics, it is equally clear that the rates are much lower for those with a college education. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma was 9.6%, more than double the unemployment rate (4.4%) for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Even more disturbing, those who question the value of a college education ignore the societal benefits of having a well-educated citizenry. Do the pundits really believe, for example, that a less educated workforce would enhance the ability of the U.S. to compete in global markets? As I mentioned two years ago in discussing this topic, the Council of Independent Colleges and Universities summed up the societal benefits: “[W]e all benefit from the higher tax revenues, the lower demands on social programs, and the higher productivity generated by the highly educated. Investments in higher education benefit all of society through service to communities, healthier citizens who live longer lives, regional economic growth, and innovations in science and technology.”
Besides the economic and societal benefits, a college education has personal value as well. It leads to personal growth and development, giving students the skills and understandings to enable them to live fully informed and actively engaged lives.
I believe the recent discussion has focused attention on the wrong question. The question is not whether one should get a college degree (I suspect that most of those questioning the value of a college degree have encouraged their own children to attend college), rather on how to select the right college to obtain the degree.
In selecting a college, students and parents should consider such factors as: (a) kinds of academic programs; (b) actual cost, which takes into consideration the amount of institutional financial aid provided by the school; (3) retention rates; (4) graduation rates; (5) close connections between students and faculty; (6) opportunities for internships, experiential learning, research, international experiences, and community service; (7) safety; (8) intangibles (e.g., sense of community); (9) student loan default rates; and (10) employment and graduate schools for recent graduates.
To me it seems clear that rather than looking for reasons not to attend college, we should be working together to ensure both access to higher education and successful completion of a college education.