I know that sounds like I’m channeling my inner Yogi Berra, but bear with me. A recent article by David Leonhart refuting claims that college is a waste of money has led to a further round of related posts (as you’ll see, I agree). But the reason the ‘college is a waste’ arguments have any traction is not due to what colleges are delivering, but what students (or their parents) pay to attend college. The price of college is becoming prohibitively expensive in light of an educational model–the real benefit–that really hasn’t changed much since the 1950s and 1960s. Before I get to the benefits, let’s consider the costs. Here’s what college, including all expenses, fees, and so on, cost in 1960:
The median household income in 1960 was $5620 (pdf). Housing was cheaper, thanks to suburban settlement policies. Scholarships, especially the GI Bill, could cover most or all of these costs. Importantly, the minimum wage was $1.00 and rose to $1.15 in 1961. That’s key: if we rescale the cost of college in terms of minimum wage hours, we notice something critical. Someone who worked after school and during the summer in high school, and, once in college, during the summer and maybe a few hours a week could pay for college–at least a state school–without incurring debt. With a median household income of $5620 (and half made more than this), many families could also help out too.
I don’t want to be overly pollyanish about this, but college was far more affordable than it is today (the only job for college students that could possibly pay the total cost of school by itself I can think of is ‘exotic dancer’). So the question then becomes what exactly is one affording? College has several key functions:
1) Credentialing. If you want to attend a professional school, you need a degree.
2) Signaling. Employers realize that if you can graduate from college, you probably (though not always) be brought up to speed relatively quickly.
3) Basic skills. The ability to write and know some other basic skills is worth something to employers.
4) Finishing school. Like it or not, the U.S. is a class-riven society. College performs a critical role in socializing students in professional-class mores (and, unfortunately, too often values)
5) Expanding one’s horizons. I mean this both academically (learning things, reading books one otherwise wouldn’t have read), as well as the gains of being exposed to different ideas, places, and people.
This really hasn’t changed since the post-WWII expansion of higher education. Functions 1 – 4 have definite economic benefits, as Leonhardt notes. But other than the credentialing function, most of these gains are fairly nebulous and diffuse. In the long run, all of these things are worthwhile. But college is so expensive–and out of reach for someone whose family can’t foot the bill–that the entry costs are prohibitive, or require incredibly daunting loans. In 1960, for many students, there was an economic path through college, so diffuse outcomes were acceptable. In 2011, beginning adult life with massive debt makes diffuse outcomes far less appealing.
That’s why I think the question of the value of college is being raised.