We’ve tackled the costs of college and the merits of a vocational education, but we haven’t yet tackled the big question — is college even worth it in the first place? To find out, let’s take a step outside The Echo Chamber. For many, college has always been the obvious choice — almost 70 percent of U.S. high school graduates receive some post-secondary education, and in the United States, college is considered the de facto path to success. College and success have become so intertwined that people have been flocking to higher education in droves; between 1975 and 2015, the percentage of individuals over 25 with a bachelor’s degree rose from 13.9 percent to 32.5 percent.
While college is a yellow brick road for some, for many, it is not.
Student debt is a major factor in the devaluation of a college education. In 2015, the average debt for student loan borrowers was $30,100 — a four percent increase from 2014. This debt can pool and fester, even outlasting death. But incurred debt is not the only problem: 40 percent of students who started at a four-year institution in 2008 did not graduate by 2014, and almost the same proportion of those who did graduate found themselves in jobs that didn’t even require a four-year education. After four years, many students end up with degrees for which there are no jobs; in 2013, only 6.5 percent of communications graduates found a job in the same field.
The value of any purchase is defined by its return on investment (ROI). College is no different. In a 2013 study, 46 degrees left graduates worse off than if they had made a 20-year investment in treasury bills, with 18 of those being different types of art degrees receiving a negative ROI. But just like a set of Nikes vs. a pair of Dollar General sneakers, what gives something its value is its brand. The percent annual return over 20 years for many name-brand schools, including those in the Ivy League, is usually somewhere in the double digits. For others, like students at Shaw University in North Carolina, the ROI falls into the negative double digits — many lose money by going to college.
Not all is bleak for our futures, though. Even with the exorbitant costs — public universities annually cost around $9,410 for in-state residents while private universities cost around $32,405 — the ROI for a college degree is usually positive. On average, as of April 2013, someone with a bachelor’s degree earned $500,000 more over their lifetime than someone who has only graduated high school, and the unemployment rate of college grads over 25 was 3.6 percent — four percent lower than that of high school grads. And as many know, the value of a four-year college experience cannot be boiled down to sheer ROI; for many, college is a life-changing experience that cannot be evaluated in numbers. And for many employers, college is a filter — by simply having a bachelor’s degree, your employment opportunities completely change.
But is college really worth it? Are the life experiences and face-to-face class time equal to an annual $50,000 price tag? And what happens when a four-year degree only leads to a five-figure salary? I’ll leave these questions for you to decide. I just hope that you’ve enjoyed some time outside The Echo Chamber.