Mark Twain once commented that Richard Wagner’s music “isn’t as bad as it sounds.” Despite daily sob stories of student debt, joblessness, and emotional disappointment, many defenders of higher education insist that college is absolutely worth it, for everyone.
This is a simple reduction of the argument that deceives many. Nobody disputes that college graduates earn more money over the course of a lifetime, enjoy higher rates of employment, and report higher levels of incidental benefits associated with a college degree, like healthcare coverage and personal fulfillment in the workplace. Fine.
But when writers like the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews insist that college is a vital public good that nobody should miss out on, the question of “is college worth it?” gets wrongly conflated with “should everybody go to college?” Matthews writes:
So does college raise incomes? Is it an investment good enough to make widely accessible?
Yes, it is. Period. Usually, this would be the part of the article where I note that there’s disagreement and perhaps a slight weighting of evidence to one side or the other. I won’t.
Let me suggest a hypothetical scenario. Would anyone suggest that a mediocre student of no financial means borrow $32,000 per year to attend the University of Phoenix as a philosophy major? After all, the numbers suggest that the average college graduate will earn $600,000 more over the course of a lifetime. But wait: A graduate of a for-profit college barely earns more than a high school graduate. If we believe in regression to the mean, then our University of Phoenix student (if he graduates) will be poorer than if he just kept working directly out of high school. What about this religious studies major from Northeastern University? She’s $70,000 in debt with no job prospects attractive enough to let her pay down her debt and live on her own. At a minimum, even with a salary above the average median income, she’s probably 10 years away from any financial peace.
Saying that college is always worth it is a gross oversimplification of the question. It depends on if you graduate, what you study, and where you go. Not everyone is cut out academically for college. And the price is prohibitively high for most students, independent of financial support from parents. This is why it is so important that employers behind to honor educational credentials other than the bachelor’s degree.
For too long, colleges have set their own value, knowing that degree-holders fare better in life. But more people are seeing through the monopoly on learning. Higher ed reforms should be glad that 200 schools are now adopting the College Learning Assessment, a post-collegiate exit exam that measures cognitive ability, like the SAT. Employers, fed up with GPA as a proxy for intelligence, can now more accurately judge what students know. This will increase accountability on colleges to deliver students who have made quantifiable cognitive gains. And it will help clarify the fact that every college isn’t always worth it.