“Is College a Lousy Investment?” | What I think.

Newsweek cover: September 17, 2012

Newsweek cover: September 17, 2012

There’s been a lot of hub-bub lately about the out-of-control costs of college. I read Newsweek’s recent cover article — “Is College a Lousy Investment?” — and it really got me thinking. September is back-to-school  time.   Like many other parents and students, education is on my mind.  Heck, one of our top reasons for trying extreme commuting was because of our current school district, which is ranked in the top 100 nationally, year after year.

So, IS college worth the cost?

“Mythomania about college has turned getting a degree into an American neurosis.”

I grew up in a little town in the middle of nowhere during the 70s and 80s. I came from smart but not college-educated parents. Not many people from my little town went to college. I had a mother, though, who informed us (my brother and me) from a very young age that we were going to college.

“College is about much more than just the classes,” my mom used to say. “It’s about the entire experience.”

By the time I reached junior high, I knew that it was my ticket out. And boy, did I want out of that little town.

To say that going away to Ithaca College was an adjustment would a huge understatement. The young woman who graduated 4 years later bore little resemblance to that awkward, sheltered teenage freshman … in only the best of ways. College isn’t only about what I learned in the lecture halls. I did have to take out loans to cover the cost of college, though. I came from a family of modest means and scholarships and financial aid weren’t quite enough.

Ithaca College graduation

My graduation from Ithaca College.
L to R: my brother, me, my mom, my grandpa, my aunt.

“It’s sending parents to the poorhouse and saddling students with a backpack full of debt that doesn’t even guarantee a good job in the end.”

I graduated into a terrible economy and struggled to find a job. I lived at home and waitressed for a short while. Eventually, I found work and went out on my own. And I started at the very bottom. After a few years of being broke and bored, I knew that I needed to change direction.

“It’s very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in.  Conversely, chemical engineers straight out of school can easily make triple or quadruple the wages of an entry-level high-school graduate.”

The Web as we know it today was just starting to blossom.  I became very interested in websites, interactive multimedia, networks … anything related to computer technology. I took a few programming classes and got accepted into the Master’s Program in Information Technology at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“…the past few decades have witnessed an explosion in graduate and professional degrees, as kids who previously would have stopped at college look for ways to stand out in the job market.”

Armed with real world experience and a more pragmatic outlook, I made sure that the investment was worth it before I started.  And in the end, it was.

Rochester Institute of Technology (Master's Degree) graduation

Mom and me at graduation for my Master’s Degree

We are already thinking about college for our girls.  And, given the recent hype and a wealth of personal experience, I have strong opinions about it:

  • College is definitely about the experience, along with the classes. My mom was so right (isn’t she always?!).
  • College isn’t a lousy investment … if you use your head. I refuse to finance a degree in (for example) philosophy, art history or drama for my kids. Education is a lofty goal but don’t let the university academics fool you. The investment in education is worth it … if you gain usable and real world skills or knowledge there. Be pragmatic. I wouldn’t major in business again as an undergrad.  But I would study Information Technology again.  The combination of the two has been useful.
  • Most 18 year olds don’t have enough real world experience to make that connection. How can parents change that? I’m still thinking about that one but … I have a feeling that getting a job during high school and understanding the value of work is part of it.  This will be a requirement in our house.
  • Requiring a financial contribution from your children for their education isn’t a bad thing.  We’ll do all that we can, of course.  But I am not sure if it’s good to hand it all to my kids on a silver platter.
    Ithaca College graduation

What do you think? Is college worth it? What have you learned from your own experiences? How do you or will you guide your own children in their choices after high school?


12 thoughts on ““Is College a Lousy Investment?” | What I think.

  1. My answer to your question, “Is college worth it?”, Yes AND No.

    I dropped out of college and never completed my degree after I decided what I wanted most was to get married, have a family, and stay at home with my children. Of course, all the adults in my life at the time told me what a mistake that would be, but I was young and thought I knew better than them. Fast forward several years…Yes, they were right after all! I do not regret having my children and being a stay at home Mom. However, I do wish that I had taken advantage of the opportunities of continuing my education and completing my degree when I was given that chance. In today’s world, it is tough living on 1 income. We made the choice very early on to learn to live without certain luxuries, such as brand new cars and annual vacations and we’ve made due. Who knew 20 years later we would actually still be struggling and now it is just to be able to put gas in the car and food on the table. Don’t get me wrong, we are definitely not destitute by any means. We have a nice house, we have good used cars, and we live in a friendly neighborhood. We have food on the table and clothes on our back. I have homeschooled both of my children because as much as I like the neighborhood we live in, the school system is much to be desired (in my opinion). At any rate I have been homeschooling for 10 years now and it has worked out pretty well for us. Now that the economy has taken a dive and prices keep going up, up, up, I do wish I had more than just a high school education to fall back on. Not to mention the fact that now that my children are older, I need something more to keep myself occupied. At best, I would probably be able to get a part time minimum wage job, and how much is that going to really help out at this point. So, I have decided to go back to school. Because I am still homeschooling my youngest, I have chosen to continue my education via a distance learning program. It’s not as easy as it may sound, but I have a goal and I plan to achieve it.

    That being said, I do believe an extended education is VERY important in this day in age. I do not believe that college is for everyone and I most definitely do not believe that it is necessary to accumulate thousands of dollars of debt just to get a degree. I think it is important that today’s youth take advantage of all of the options out there in order to graduate with as little debt as possible. After all, who wants to start their “life” already struggling to keep their head above water. I believe there should be more apprenticeship programs available. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually gain work experience in your chosen field while getting an education? I think emphasis should be placed on these types of programs as well as community colleges and technical school programs in order to cut down on educational costs and provide students with more hands on experiences.

    Just my 2 cents…

    • I agree with you Deb about apprenticeship programs. These have all but disappeared. There was a time when there was a more clear path from childhood to “practicing for adulthood” to “adult.”

    • Ah, yes … don’t we always think that we know more than the adults in our lives when we are younger? 😉 I wholly agree with your points that education is so important AND so is simultaneous real-life experience. That is where I “fell down” when I earned my bachelor’s degree. Ithaca was a great school and a provided a great education BUT I don’t think that they emphasized internships enough. And I was too naive to think about it. I worked summers, vacations and all through the school year to earn money to help pay for college, but I wished that I would have gotten more professional experience during undergrad. I was much smarter in graduate school at RIT. I did 2 co-ops at RIT while I was in school and ended up getting a job there when I graduated. Universities that emphasize and require internships and co-ops are better for students. I really believe this. I also agree that not everyone is suited for college. Skilled trades are also a great option.

  2. If weas a country haven’t learned anything over the last ten years by watching 100,000s of students strapped by enormous debt then we aren’t paying attention….students are paying for ridiculously expensive meal plans, layers and layers of administration, high dollar marketing campaigns, poorly planned technology initiatives…

    And the textbook publishing monopolies…don’t get me started!

    The system needs “some fixin’

    • TOTALLY agree! Parents and young adults need to be smart consumers and strategize on how to get the best and most directed education at the lowest cost. They need to make sure that the investment that they are making will pay off in the end. Making smart career choices is key! I did this before I started grad school. But you can bet that I will having lots of discussions about this well before my kids go to college. Julie, what are the plans for Jonathan? I am sure that that this weighs heavily on your minds!

  3. Well, I don’t think it’s a lousy investment but I do think that kids don’t have the option any more of “becoming whatever they want”. In this economy your choices are extremely limited as to what occupations are hiring on a constant basis. I graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2008 (a top 10 ranked college in the U.S. At the time, I’m not sure whay their current rank it) & I have yet to find a job in my chosen field-counseling. Now counseling is a much needed occupation in our area but because of the economy so many students graduated with me with the exact same degree (many of us had changed our original major from teaching to sociology- because there is no money in teaching any more either). I will definitely encourage my children to go to college but I would highly recommend nursing or accounting- positions that will never be filled.

    • It all goes back to being strategic, yup, I am there with you. The demand of some fields wax and wane but a solid education with real skills will serve you well, I believe. Soft skills are important but don’t go college for something too fuzzy. That’s a mistake (yeah, I know some academics and think tank types would flame me for that statement …). I look at schools like RIT, which offer programs with real world, applied skills, and I can’t help but think that those are the ones offering real value.

  4. Hmmm, I’ve been thinking on this, and an experience a friend just went through gave me pause. It is important to choose as wisely as an 18-year-old can, whether it’s college or a vocational school, not only for the quality of the education but for the financial impact as well.
    But one thing I worry about when we swing the balance of higher education to the “you’d better be able to get a job with that paper!” side of things is if we’re pushing people to go into fields that they are in no way suited for. Take nursing, for example: sure, there are lots of nursing jobs available, and probably always will be. And lots of people go through LPN training, because lots of job-retraining programs encourage it as there’s often a good market for LPNs. But how many of these folks are actually temperamentally suited for the job? How many of us have heard, and possibly experienced, horror stories of how their spouse/parent/child were treated poorly by a medical professional (and really, insert any job that involves people skills here, I don’t mean to trash nurses as a whole)? But they have a nice practical degree they can use. It used to be that getting a teaching degree was considered a pretty good fall-back plan, too, and we all had sucky teachers who hated kids. So just because the job might be available is not the best reason to study for it.
    Also, along with the experience, and the marketable skills, I feel that one of the points of higher education is still to encourage people who value education for the sake of learning itself-even if it isn’t part of your job to do it. Otherwise, why bother spending four years for an undergrad degree? Couldn’t we strip out all but the essential courses needed to be a (insert profession), and make it all go faster, and therefore cheaper? No, you don’t have to go to college to appreciate learning. But we need to have a culture of continuous education and exploration and I think colleges can still be big incubators for that, not just higher-priced vocational schools.

    (And Susan, you knew I’d be the fuzzy one to chime in like this, right? 😉 )

    • I love your viewpoints always, Barb! 🙂 When I graduated from Ithaca, my brother (who went to RIT for his Bachelor’s) said to me, “You went to college to get an education. I went to college to get a job.” I’ll never forget that. And, he was right. IC is a liberal arts college and I definitely got a well-rounded education. It was there that I discovered how much I loved academics. I loved researching, I loved writing. I’ve always been a voracious reader. To be honest, if money weren’t an issue, I would become a professional student and study obscure subjects that I find interesting :-). I love being an educated person. The well-rounded part of my education sparked in me a lifelong love of learning, so I agree with you there. Somehow, a balance needs to be struck. I don’t think most people have the financial means to go to college simply for exposure to a liberal arts education. On the flip side, it would be a shame not to be exposed to other things while you are focusing on your primary educational interest. With the current cost model, there needs to be a payoff. I DO think that it is up to students (with help from parents) to be a smart consumers, find the balance and look ahead to the future to make sure the investment is worth it. This is the message that is missing from college planning and really, the one that I personally think needs to be emplasized. I think we are actually fairly close in our opinions :-). I LOVE the discussion!

  5. The current cost model is absolutely an issue. My niece started at RIT just this fall (how did this happen??? ). Not only do I have to get my head around having a niece old enough to be in college, she’s also the first person in our family not to go to a state school. She wants nothing to do with liberal arts-she’s going for chemical engineering. Ignoring that my personal brain doesn’t work like that at all :-), and that she’s got the smarts to get in and get scholarship help to be there…well. I have to say, there’s nice little perks about being there that my state-school educated self can’t quite twig. The dorms are air-conditioned. The laundry is free. (FREE! My sister and I can’t get over that one. They’ll grow up not knowing the joys of scrounging quarters!) The laundry TEXTS them when it’s finished! And maybe there’s goodies like that at SUNY now too, but I’m assuming not quite to the same extent.
    Now, the school has the program she wanted. I don’t know engineering programs at all, so I don’t know many other options (other than Geneseo has a back-to-back bachelor’s/master’s agreement with several grad schools, including U of R and Clarkson, to name a few-but maybe not chemical engineering). RIT is not sports-heavy. But do all the little perks add up to a better engineering program, or just a better experience (and a higher tuition bill)? Are there comparable programs available without all the luxuries, or would schools like that lose students to the (for lack of a better word) cushier ones?

    And yes, I think we probably are pretty close in our viewpoints here. 🙂 Mom nearly had heart failure when I announced I would be going into music education, but it seems to have worked out. (Glad I’m not just starting out in education now, though.)

  6. Pingback: 4th grade homework is hell | Bridging the Distance

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