Is College Worth It?

As I noted the other day, we're entering graduation season, one of the two month-long periods (the other being "back to school" time in August/September) when everybody pretends to care deeply about education. Accordingly, the people at the Pew Research Center have released a new report on the opinions of the general public and college presidents about various topics related to higher education. The totally neutral post title is copied from their report.

So, what do they find about general public attitudes? The usual confused muddle:

Cost and Value. A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority--75%--says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. At the same time, however, an overwhelming majority of college graduates--86%--say that college has been a good investment for them personally.

This is more or less the result you get from any poll of this sort. People hate politicians, but like their own local elected officials; they dislike the medical establishment, but like their own doctors; and so on. The exact numbers vary from topic to topic, but the general pattern holds.

The general topic, though, is worth talking about a little, because I think "worth it" is a poorly defined question, which is something that is important to remember when thinking about things like this survey or the Academically Adrift business.

Most people writing reports or op-eds with titles like "Is College Worth It?" have some reason to claim that the answer is "no." Economists point to the high cost of college, and argue that the wage premium for a college degree doesn't justify the up-front investment. Academic scolds invent tests of one quality or another, and use them to show that our college students isn't learning. And so on. Nearly all of them end up scratching their heads at public opinion results like this Pew survey, marveling that people can be so dumb/gullible/whatever to continue believing that college is worthwhile, often forecasting DOOM for the academy as a result.

The problem is, "worth it" means different things to different people, and many of the meanings aren't captured by whichever standard is in use at the time. As a result, it's perfectly possible for everyone to be right, in their own frame of reference, but for all the individual actors to think that everybody else is wrong.

From an academic's perspective, the ideal case is probably a student who comes to college and falls in love with learning. They take a course to fill a requirement on their way to the medical/law/business degree that their parents want them to get, and find a passion for some other subject, and run with that, going on to become a scholar themselves. This probably doesn't produce any particular economic benefit, but it quite literally changes the course of that student's life. Down the road, if asked, they will almost certainly say that the experience was "worth it" for them.

Other students come in needing specific factual knowledge to move on in their careers-- they know that they want to go to medical school, but need a biology degree and two physics classes to get in. This may not produce any significant improvement in some academic's test of "critical reasoning," but it produces a very significant improvement in the student's chances of medical school admission. Down the road, if asked, they will probably say that the experience was "worth it," before collapsing in a heap at the end of their 36-hour on-call shift.

Still other students just need the connections that come with a degree from a particular institution. They're aiming at the same tier of semi-anonymous white-collar jobs as millions of other college students, but because they went to the same Flagship State U as the person hiring, they get called in for an interview ahead of someone who went to Rival Institution. Or one of their professors has a former student who's starting a new company and needs a few employees. Or their roommate's sister's cousin knows a producer who's looking for some new writers. And so on. That sort of thing goes on all the time, and again, it may not show up as an increase in some quasi-academic measure, or as a big bump in earnings, but if it makes the difference between getting the job that they want rather than another job that isn't quite as good (or, in this market, no job at all), those students will say the experience was "worth it" to them.

And there are others who are just looking for interesting experiences along the way. They know they're going to become lawyers or middle managers, and want to have some fun before they go into the working world. Whether that means spending a term taking art history or Chinese literature, or spending a semester in Europe or Australia, or just drinking improbable quantities of alcohol at major sporting events, they're looking to have some fun before they become corporate drones. And as long as they have good stories to tell their friends down the road, they may very well consider the experience "worth it" for them.

For most people, the end result of college is some combination of these to varying degrees-- they discovered an unlikely major, and their profesor knew somebody on the graduate admissions committee at another university, which got them a degree, and a former teammate knew a guy who was hiring, etc. "Worth it" is a muddy and complicated thing, and not particularly well captured by most of the crude measures people bring to bear on it. Which is why huge numbers of college graduates continue to say that going to college was worthwhile for them, in spite of whatever flavor of DOOM the author of the latest "Is College Worth It?" piece is peddling.


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How many people actually regret going to college? Surely there are some, particularly those who have to pay for it themselves and find themselves with hefty debts for scant gains.

If I had it all to do over again, I would go to college but not to grad school. I'd also study something related, but different.

By Johan Larson (not verified) on 17 May 2011 #permalink

You are right that 'worth it' is a nebulous concept, and you make many good points about different types of value college might add.
That said, I think you are neglecting the central issue. If you have cancer, is a 5 million dollar surgery and treatment regime 'worth it' if you live? Well sure, in the sense you'd rather be living then dead. But what about the fact that you'd be equally alive given the standard of care in another country with a different healthcare system, and for a total cost of 500,000? Well, then it doesn't necessarily seem like it was 'worth it' to not hop on a plane and go get treated elsewhere.

Using any of the personalized metrics you suggest, college may have been 'worth it' for any number of students... who would still have preferred to not end up in so many tens of thousands of dollars of debt. It simply doesn't take the many thousands of dollars in tuition that are typically charged to give students any one of the types of things you are talking about. Except maybe 'the right connections' in certain contexts (i.e. where the high tuition serves to weed out the undesirables and the college name becomes a status signal for the elite business class)

You didn't go where I thought you were going to go with that after the fold.

Even if you just treat "worth it" as a fiscal return-on-investment thing -- "Has your college degree allowed you to earn more extra income than it cost you?" -- it's still perfectly consistent for a lot of people to say their college experience was a good investment while simultaneously saying it isn't a good investment for students today: college is a lot more expensive now than it used to be. A lot. And the job market is different too.

College may be worth it if you go on the GI Bill but not if you have to take out $100K in loans that even bankruptcy won't get you out of...

Welcome to the line where perception meets reality. If you have ever attended full campus meetings where the president and all of the vice-presidents present the state of the college you will have seen the following. No students pay the advertised tuition for bigger colleges - community or junior colleges are the exception. Look at the top ten most expensive colleges and universities. The advertised tuition is usually around $50k - $60k per year.
Have you ever looked at the discount rate. Here at our private college with about 6,000 students the discount and financial packages can be upwards of 40%. Mostly those are given to freshmen to get them in the door. Once here, they rarely leave. Also our discount rates follow one rule - we need a certain dollar amount per student and some of them will pay full tuition (after discounts).
Second there is a trend in colleges and universities to see the endowment as a kind of collateral to borrow against. You want to grow your endowment so that you can borrow more money. Spending out of the endowment is frowned upon and used only when income falls short of projections. Also the colleges are non-profit all of them seek to have a bottom line - to invest back into the college (read endowment).
I often wonder what it would be like to run a college in more like a Saturn pricing model. 1) Here is the amount we need per freshman for this year. 2)Whatever that amount is will not change for the first four years you are at college. This means you know exactly how much tuition will cost for the first four years and you don't have any surprises.
Is college "worth it". Tell me what "it" is and I will give you and answer.

My thoughts as to why the survey is largely useless is that regardless of the survey results, people are voting with their feet and their pocketbooks. Is college attendance down? Are universities struggling to find students willing to pay $x for their educations?

It's pretty irrelevant what people say about something not being "worth it" when they're shelling out big money for it.

Maybe I think this because I studied economics.

"Is college worth it?" is an incomplete question; one needs to add: "Compared to what?"
And the pundits often show misleading comparisons:
- Compared to just having a high-school education, college is certainly 'worth' it, with increased employment chances, job satisfaction etc. afterward.
- But is it 'worth' to go into 4x60k$ into debt for it?
(Or have your parents deplete their pension fund and eat Ramen after reaching 65 as only food choice? Here the comparison should perhaps be between different colleges and different price levels. And between a student with the same (perfect) SAT score, who goes to Community College for 2 years, and then transfers to a state college, and someone who goes to a pricy private college. The experience might be somewhat different (grubby 1950ies concrete buildings vs leafy campus), but how much is it worth?
- Indeed, as M says, the more pricy colleges offer discount rates, and the high nominal tuition is required to demonstrate exclusivity and high value, and giving a discount then is a good marketing tool (it allows all parents to brag: "My child got into [famous Ivy] on a scholarship!" No matter if said scholarship is a smallish fraction of the tuition and the remainder is loans (at 8 1/2 %!) to parents, unless parent's income is indeed below 60k$/year.)
- The other additional information needed to define 'worth' is which of the products of our fine tertiary education system you want to have, an education (offered by all, from community colleges to the Ivies), or access and privilege and second chances (offered only at a price to exclude most).
- As clayton says, people still go to and pay outrageous sums for college, so the price is right? But I think that smaller colleges might be under more pressure now; they had to keep up spending on facilities to compete for the spoiled children of the rich, but the middle class in the U.S. with their pension plans and housing equity depleted might not be able to afford them any more. Of course the defunded state colleges also had to increase their price.

I actually did it all over again; after taking time off from a career to nurse elderly parents, I decided to go back to school and get an MS in an unrelated field. (Fortunately my husband was agreeable to this, and we can live on one salary.)

I am so, so happy with my choice. I'm almost finished with my thesis, and hope to hire myself out as a freelance specialist. Maybe it'll work; maybe it won't. But the journey has been fantastic.

Now, is college worth it? Both my undergraduate and graduate degrees were from state universities in my home state, and I come from a middle-class background, so cost wasn't an issue particularly for me. It has been for a lot of my classmates. Especially when I was taking undergraduate courses in my new field, I met a number of students who were getting grants; a high number of these were the first generation in their families to go to college. For them, I don't think there'd be any question that college was definitely worth it.

this is economics, so the answer is for "the margin", they think perturbatively.

Is college "worth it" if you are encouraging more people to go to college - maybe not; if nothing else the resulting shortage of young plumbers and mechanics makes skipping college more lucrative and the competition of overqualified college grads and higher drop out rates make college less worth while.

If significant numbers of people decide college is not worth it, then it becomes more worth while for those who stay in college.

If I were an economist I'd now plot a toy graph with no labels on the axis to show there exists a theoretical equilbrium where the mean marginal benefit of going to college goes to zero and there is enrollment equilibrium

as a theorist I assert there is actually a lag time and an effective propagator in perception space, which causes limit cycling about any conjectured equlibrium, with chaotic behaviour and interesting possibilities of collapse to new equlibria

so now I'll have to write my own blog post

I personally think the need for college is one of the most over-hyped things in the world today. Someone who is passionate about what they're in to, can be excellent at it without going to college. Too many grads also come out of sense of entitlement that they're actually better than others. I've met college grads, who actually look down on people who've been doing the job they want for 20 years, but don't have a degree. Well they are DOING the job and doing it well. They believed they were entitled to the same money as this person, just because they had the degree. It was absurd. Apparently college doesn't teach the difference between knowledge, and intelligence.

In my own life, I'm an accountant who doesn't have a degree. I got hired on at a very large company doing data entry, but was able to show my boss that I had a natural affinity for the job. I understood things, that he said usually caused other people's eyes to glaze over. I was passionate about what I do.

Today, nearly all my friends have college degrees. The closest in pay to me, makes 30k a year less than I do. And most of them make less than half. College grads are also the 2nd highest unemployed group in the country right now, behind teenagers. I'm glad I didn't waste precious years of my life going to college.

"College grads are also the 2nd highest unemployed group in the country right now, behind teenagers."

This claim is just flat wrong no matter how you slice it.

Your on the job apprenticeship model might work well for business things, but do you want to want to get into a jet plane designed by someone who picked aeronautical engineering up on the job?

Also, to answer you needless nastiness about wasting 'precious years of your life going to college', I would point out that you are an _accountant_ at a large company.

There are a lot of intangibles that result from going to college. You can make valuable contacts. Even Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of Harvard ended up meeting people with the skills and resources to start Facebook.

College graduates also seem to put higher priority on family life, spending more time with their children and helping prepare them for life's experiences.

You're spot on -- "worth it" means different things for different people.

A college education has other benefits besides the tangible one of a high salary. Some people enjoy learning for the sake of learning; it exposes you to new ideas and concepts. A degree also shows prospective employers that the candidate is tenacious and has the ability to set a goal and execute it