It’s commencement season, so it’s no surprise that the “Is college worth it?” question is making headlines (again) this week. Perhaps fueled by nervous graduates and parents wondering if they’ve just flushed four (or more) years and many thousands of dollars down the drain, a column on that question by David Leonhardt of The New York Times became the most-read and most-emailed article on the newspaper’s website.
The question isn’t new, nor are the answers, nor are the reactions to those answers. Not surprisingly, the debate about the value of a college degree can get heated. So where did we land in this most recent round of think pieces? Here’s a quick summary of this week’s answers to the perennial question “Is college worth it?”
Not only is college worth it, it is becoming more and more worth it, Mr. Leonhardt wrote in the piece that set off the latest debate. In the early 1980s, Americans with four-year college degrees earned 64 percent more than those without; in 2013, that number was up to 98 percent.
“For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable,” Mr. Leonhardt wrote.
Mr. Leonhardt based his piece in part on new research by David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who estimates that, on average, the value of going to college is half a million dollars over a lifetime.
“The decision not to attend college for fear that it’s a bad deal is among the most economically irrational decisions anybody could make in 2014,” Mr. Leonhardt wrote.
Yes, if You Graduate
The response to Mr. Leonhardt’s piece has been more equivocal. At Five Thirty Eight, Ben Casselman stressed that the college wage premium applies only to those who actually graduate from college, a point Mr. Leonhardt mentioned only in passing.
“Any attempt to answer the ‘Is college worth it?’ question, therefore, has to grapple with not only the value of a degree, but the likelihood of obtaining one,” Mr. Casselman wrote.
He pointed out that, nationally, fewer than 60 percent of full-time students enrolled at four-year institutions graduate within six years, and the numbers are considerably worse for poorer students and racial minorities. That figure has barely budged in recent years, despite efforts by the president, legislators, and private foundations.
Sometimes It Isn’t Worth It
At NPR’s nprED blog, Anya Kamenetz added a few more caveats to clarify the times when going to college isn’t worth it. Attending a for-profit college where the tuition and debt burden are high and graduation rates are low is probably not worth it, she wrote. Whether or not college is worth it also depends on what major you pick.
“The gap in average earnings by undergraduate major is just as wide as the gap between high-school and college grads,” Ms. Kamenetz wrote.
(The data she linked to, like most graduates’ salary data, include only those people whose highest degree is a bachelor’s degree, so the results skew toward industries that don’t require postgraduate education, as we’ve written about before.)
What Do We Mean by ‘College’ and ‘Worth It’?
At Inside Higher Ed, Matt Reed did a close reading of the Leonhardt piece and came away with even more caveats. What do we mean by college?, he asked. It matters not only where you go or whether you finish, but also how long you stay there.
“If we know what we’re talking about, frequently, we’d use the plural, since so many students attend more than one college before graduation,” he wrote.
In addition, Mr. Reed asked, what does “worth it” mean? Is it strictly financial gain, or does it refer to the softer skills gained from a liberal education? And is college only “worth it” if it brings benefits for students? What about the benefits for employers or for society?
To answer “Is college worth it?,” Mr. Reed says, you have to “be specific.”
So where does this leave us? The question “Is college worth it?” clearly can’t be answered unequivocally. So much depends on another question: “Worth it for whom?” Is college worth it for everyone? Worth it for an individual student? Worth it on average? Worth it for society? Each of those questions is likely to lead to a different answer.