Is College Worth It?
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
With the yearly tuition cost of a two-year college at $3,000, a public four-year college or university (in state) $9,000, a public four-year college or university (out of state) $23,000 and a private four-year college or university, $34,000, college tuition is rising in this country at a rate faster than the average family income. For this reason, there are some who are proposing that colleges and universities may be overrated and a waste of time. Those proponents believe colleges are becoming increasingly ideologically and politically monochromatic and are allowing opportunities for students to be exposed to, and experiment with, drugs and alcohol.
A group of researchers who have written a book entitled, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, claim to have studied over 2000 students. Their results showed that students studied an average of five hours a week; which is a disappointing 50% drop from several decades ago. It also showed that, “Forty-five percent of students…did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning over the first two years of college and close to 40% didn’t learn anything, at all, over all four years.”
The study alleged that there has been a decline in adult literacy over the past 25 years, despite the fact that more people are attending colleges and universities. Forty-three percent of grades given out by college professors are A’s, according to data published by The Teachers College of Columbia University. Yet 50% of students about to graduate from four-year colleges and 75% of students graduating from two-year colleges, fall below the proficient level of literacy, according to fieldwork by the American Institutes for Research.
This would infer, despite the influx of rigorous college exit exams, that American institutions are are failing our students by graduating inept individuals who fall significantly below proficiency on adult verbal and quantitative literacy test and who are incapable of the cognitive skills necessary for tackling some of the most basic real world task, like analyzing two sides of an argument or calculating sale items at retail stores. Yet, these same institutions are hiking up fees in order to garner huge profits without any regard for the academic talent and prowess of its constituents.
Can the majority of today’s college graduates complete simple cognitive task? I used to tell my middle-school students, “If you are unable to proficiently calculate simple thinking exercises, you will become a slave to those who can.” If you are a college graduate, there is no excuse.
So, the question remains, “Is college worth it?” Well, there are a few factors to consider: Cost, Reputation, Credit, Networking and Entrepreneurship.
Cost is a huge factor when considering a particular college or university. If students do not receive some sort of financial assistance, many families can go into significant amounts of debt in order to offset the cost. The suggestion would be to start saving early. At 16, kids can get part-time jobs. There is no reason why they cannot contribute $50 a week towards their college fund. That’s an extra $7,200 by the time the student is ready to enter college.
If cost is a real factor, consider junior and community colleges. These, mostly two-year institutions are a significant, affordable alternative to their higher priced four-year counterparts. The beauty is, no one cares where you started college your freshman and sophomore year. Companies are only interested in where you received your bachelor’s degree. Let’s put this in perspective; if you spend two years at an (in-state) community college at $3,000 per year, then transferred to an (in-state) four-year college or university at $9,000 per year, you would graduate owing a total of $24,000. Instead, if you went to a college or university all four years, you would graduate owing $36,000. That is a significant $12,000 difference. (Of course, the fees would increase if the student went to college out of state, but the ratios would be similar.)
I do not recommend families going into astronomical amounts of debt in order to send their kids to college. I also do not recommend students going into huge amounts of debt. For example, if you aspire to become a teacher, with an average starting salary of around $40,000 a year, attending a private college that cost $30,000 a year is not cost effective (unless you and/or your family can truly afford it). You would graduate with $120,000 in debt ($150,000 if you are like most students who graduate in five years instead of four). You would be paying the equivalent of a house payment, before you got your first job or purchased your first home. On the other hand, if you went to an (in-state) junior college for two years ($6,000) and an (in-state) college or university for two years ($18,000), you would graduate owing $24,000. (Thirty-three thousand dollars, if you graduate in five years.) That is a difference of of $96,000 and $116,000 respectively.
Networking is an imperative part of college. In business, it is always about who you know. When one begins to establish those relationships in college, its residual effects are beneficial upon graduation. Therefore, form, join, and contribute to study groups. They will not only decrease your amount of individual study time; they will present opportunities for lifelong friendships and possible future business relationships. In addition, join organizations that are within, similar to, or align with your major. Doing so will also build friendships and increase the potential for future business dealings.
Actively engage in your classes. Often professors have a lot of connections and contacts; from colleagues in their fields to former students. This makes them a very valuable resource during your job search or entrepreneurial endeavors after you graduate.
Internships also present astronomical opportunities for networkking. However, students need to take internships seriously. Just because they are unpaid does not mean they present reasons to, "slack off." Not only are they great work experience opportunities, they also get your foot in the door, and even if it doesn’t lead to a job, the professionals you meet become valuable resources, references and contacts for your future career in your industry.
When choosing which college or university to attend, one is effectively choosing one’s future. Choose wisely because it is the institution that will be on your resume the rest of your life.
There are many factors that should go into choosing an institution. One of the most important, is the reputation of the school and its faculty. For example, you have been accepted to Harvard, but you want to study dance. Assuming that Harvard has a dance department, do you attend?
That factor depends on how serious you are about your career. Do you feel you have the skill and drive necessary to compete with other dancers? Have you considered the longevity of a dancer’s career? What do you plan to do after dance? What dance instructors teach at Harvard and how will they enhance your future career in the field? Do you have other strong professional interest or aspirations outside of dance?
Answering these questions honestly may give you some incite as to whether Harvard is the best school for you. For example, you may feel that you really want a professional career in dance and your skills warrant such a direction. In this case Harvard, despite it prestigious reputation, may not be the school for you. You may want to consider Julliard.
On the other hand, you may find dance as a beautiful artistic expression that you want to study and explore, but you may also have an interest in becoming a physician or microbiologist. In that case, Harvard would be an excellent choice. Take your time, choose wisely, and strategically.
Credit should be a required class for every incoming freshman student. No matter the income of the parents, not too many students graduate college without some type of credit card debt. This is because credit card companies become pariahs to incoming students who have little knowledge of the how the credit system works and its potential future benefits. The only thing most 18 year olds know is, “I have this card that it says I have money on it. I don’t really have money, but I can charge up thousands of dollars and make small, minimum payments.” Many do not have any concept about high interest rates and how those balances compound quickly over a short period of time.
So, even though credit should not factor into your decision on whether to attend college, it is important to note that once enrolled, credit card companies will start courting you like you are the kings and queens of Neverland. Take signing up for them seriously by declining the applications because you will definitely need credit once you graduate and start your life outside of school.
There may be times when an emergency arises and you need a credit card. A suggestion would be to get a secured card. They work more like debit cards that are aligned with your savings or checking accounts. The difference is, they do not have the word, "debit," on them and they build credit by allowing you to add money on them, up to a certain limit. In that way, you are only able to spend the specified limit on the card. Once the balance is depleted, the card is rendered inactive until you deposit more money.
Secured credit cards are a more economical way for students to build credit while not acquiring enormous amounts of debt. Therefore, if you are going to need a card for, "emergencies," a secured card is a safer way to go.
I was taught that you go to college so that when you graduate you can get a good job. In today’s corporate climate the deregulations of corporate mergers have changed the way companies view and employ their personnel. Gone are the days when working for a company 30 years gains a retirement bon voyage, pension, company plaque and a gold watch. Companies are merging and downsizing. Not out of necessity to stay afloat, but as a deliberate corporate strategy to reap larger profit margins for investors.
As a direct result of merging and downsizing employment positions are being eliminated and the remaining workforce are then required to do the task of one and sometimes two or even three extra employees. This deliberate disregard for employee health increases the level of stress, burn-out and resignations. With that being said; corporations do not have a soul.
Today’s current corporate ideology suggest that the unemployed represent opportunities for lower wages, low-balling employment offers and more profit. Therefore, it is in the best interest of individual employees to gain as much skills and expertise as possible and offer those skills to companies at a premium.
The spirit of entrepreneurship should start before college, however, while in college, always think about ways you can use the skills you gain to start your own business. Even if you graduate and go to work for a company, always think about your, “end game.” That is the time when your particular position may be downsized or eliminated and you may need your skills and level of expertise to generate an income elsewhere.
It does not matter if you are the assistant to the company president, communications director, a sales representative or custodial staff, there are ways to configure your skillset so that they become an asset to your own company. Part of your job and responsibility to yourself is to figure out how. For example, if you are an assistant to the CEO. Maybe you can design a virtual application that drastically reduces overhead within the company. You would then be able to use that application and start your own consulting firm. If you are part of the sales team and you company contracts its custodial staff from another company, maybe you can learn the "in's and out's," of that particular business, start your own custodial business and begin selling contracts to other companies. Opportunities are endless as long as you are aware they exist.
For some people , entrepreneurship is not for them (it’s not for everybody). If you find this is the case, then you should make it a point to gain as much expertise in your field as possible. You should also take advantage of every company educational perk available. That means if the company offers opportunities to go to school or take extra classes at their expense, take advantage. The goal is to make yourself as invaluable to your company as possible, without burning yourself out, so that if a lay-off is inevitable, your specific skill set and expertise, will be welcomed by other companies in your field.
In addition, keep abreast of the trends in your industry. Often times positions are phased out of companies because new technology has made them obsolete and no longer viable. Keep ahead of the trends so that you are aware of industry shifts and are able to mobilize your particular skillset so that it transfers seamlessly with the trends or into new positions within the company.
So, the question remains; Is college worth it? In most cases, college is still a great investment. However, it is not the, “end-all-save-all,” for everyone. What is most important is knowledge and obtaining a sustainable skill that will be practical in the future.
Accredited Trade Schools are still important and can be a great investment in terms of streamlining your way into the workforce quickly. Many programs can be completed in a year or less and most offer flexible schedules. The cost is comparable to community colleges with shorter programs being a little more expensive. The trade off is that you will be working in your new career sooner. Although, keep in mind, that as previously mentioned, on average, people with college degrees earn more than those without. For example, a respiratory therapist with an Associate's Degree is going to, on average, earn more than one without. So, it may be in your best interest to spend the extra time in school. It may work out in your favor over the lifetime of your career.
Our society will continue to need individuals with viable trades. However, with everything going digital, those professions are going to have to decide how they will operate and under what parameters are they going to change and progress? Are professions like plumbers and electricians going to have to study and apply more programming as everything becomes more digitalized and application based? Everything, including survival, is about continued education. Those that have it or are willing to sacrifice in order to get it, will be able to compete. Those that do not, will be controlled, put to pasture and eventually become extinct.
Even individuals who graduate from trade schools should think about entrepreneurship. If you are an electrician, plumber, hairstylist, handy person, or respiratory therapist, why not own the business instead of work for it? It would be in your best interest to take some business classes at your local junior college, college or university. (Many have extension courses, which are generally reasonably priced.) That way you can develop your business plan in class with professionals whose jobs are to assist in your success. You may even find classmates willing to share their ideas or negotiate a partnership in order to develop your business plan in creative ways you could not have imagined. Be open.
College will always be an important asset in one’s arsenal, but one must consider the aforementioned factors in order to make a conscious decision as to when, if, or where to attend. College is also very social and the liberal aspect of being exposed to diverse communities (depending on where you attend) is invaluable.
According to Study.com, “While employees with a high school education may find jobs with good benefits, college graduates typically fared better by entering higher-level careers with greater salaries. They are also more likely to receive promotions, earn raises and develop reasoning and communication skills that can be applied to their jobs.”
A 2011 report created by the American Community Survey and released by the U.S. Census Bureau, stated that those who held a bachelor's degree were expected to earn a 40-year lifetime salary of approximately $2.4 million dollars, while high school graduates only took in a lifetime salary of approximately $1.4 million dollars. Those who held master's degrees earned approximately $2.8 million dollars and holders of doctorate degrees earned in excess of $4 million dollars (www.census.gov).
So, college is definitely a worthwhile option for all who are fortunate enough to apply and graduate. Have fun, study hard, be patient, strategic, put one foot in front of the other, and understand about why you are there and who you need to meet in order to establish your career goals once you have graduated. Find your passion, discover your greatness…then sprout wings and fly.
Aaron Braxton is a writer, actor, and former educator. A bachelor’s graduate of San Diego State University and a Master’s graduate of the University of Southern California, he is the author of the young adult novel, JESSE AND THE CATERPILLAR WHO GOT ITS WINGS.