A tragedy is slowly unfolding in America. It has been going on for two generations, and will not be easily halted. The fiction that college is for everyone is turning "no child left behind" into "most adults left behind." A university education has become the shibboleth of employment, any employment. In some states such as California, the traditional alternatives to college, vo-tech schools and apprenticeship programs, are vanishing or have been done away with entirely. Thus, millions of kids who really aren't suited to classroom education find themselves wasting time "learning" useless things while amassing huge debt.
Prior to about 1960, perhaps 15% went to college and 3/4 of those obtained at least one degree. Today 2/3 of high school graduates begin college immediately, but only about half (55-58%, depending on the source you read) of those actually finish at any time in their life.
The Wikipedia article Higher Education in the US opens with some telling statements:
"In 2006, 19.5% of the adult population had attended college but had no degree, 7.4% held an associate's degree, 17.1% held a bachelor's degree, and 9.9% held a graduate or professional degree."Adding up the figures in the first statement, in 2006 54% of adults had had some college and 34% obtained at least a 2-year degree. The figures increased a little by 2012, where it was found that 34% (of those age 27) had at least a 4-year degree among 84% who had "some college".
"The United States Department of Education did a longitudinal survey of 15,000 high school students in 2002 and surveyed them again in 2012 at age 27. The survey found that 84% of the 27-year-olds had some college education but only 34% achieved a bachelor's degree or higher…"
The most significant factor in this change? The Higher Education Act of 1965, which established federal loans for college education. Federal loans and subsidized or guaranteed loans, with little accountability by the schools, have produced a generation bearing massive debt and degrees that are largely useless. Most who staged the Occupy protests of the past few years were unemployed degree holders with debts they have no prospect of paying off.
To quote Bill Bennet, "Our current borrowing mess partly stems from the mentality that pursuit of college is valuable at any cost." This from page 163 of Is College Worth It? by Bennett and David Wilezol. These authors show in detail the troubles that have arisen from a flood of federal money to higher education institutions.
Let's take just one figure to set a background. Just over a third of Americans have a college degree, and if you add a few percent with an associate's degree, it approaches 40%. What kind of work is there for the other 60%? Hmmm? The plain conclusion is, that for the majority of Americans, College is NOT worth it! But let us not forget that for some, college IS worth it. The answer to the book's title is a resounding "It depends."
It is commonly stated that a college degree is worth a million dollars. If you compare the lifetime earnings (44 years from age 18-62) of a high school graduate with no college, to those of a college graduate (40 years of earnings), the graduate will earn an extra million, or on average about $25,000 per year. But this average tells only part of the story. Bennett and Wilezol show the results of "bang for the buck" (AKA "return on investment" or ROI) studies for about 1,200 colleges. The top ten are impressive: on average a $2 million lifetime advantage, after subtracting out the tuition cost. But for the bottom ten, it would be better to invest the $50,000 or so in a mutual fund and leave it alone, because the ROI for the school is negative! A student spent the money (or still owes it) but earned no more than someone with no degree, and for 4 fewer years. Even more, the half who start college but don't obtain a degree are in the worst shape: Debt in the $5,000-$50,000 range, and little if any earnings boost.
Very few get into those top-ROI schools such as Harvey Mudd or Princeton. Fortunately, a table in Chapter 3 (pp 109-110) identifies 40 colleges with a total ROI, factoring in tuition loan repayment and graduation rates, in the range of $300,000-$650,000.
The authors discuss at some length the value of being the kind of student who might get into a top school. It is likely that such persons will succeed whether they attend college or not. They also discuss the stigma of "blue collar" work, yet this is still the foundation of the American middle class. The local plumbers, carpenters and electricians charge quite a bit more per hour than I was paid in my high-falutin' professional job! I just had a couple of guys in to install a new appliance. One was the company owner. No college. A self-made millionaire (owns about 20 rental properties in addition to being a remodeling guru). Lots of fun to talk to. Still working because he likes it, but with solid retirement plans, that involve still more real estate somewhere further south.
I mentioned the collapse of vo-tech education. So far as I know, of the dozens of vo-tech schools in California some 40+ years ago, none remain. Nationwide, the number is under half of what it was. The schools teaching skilled trades are struggling to stay afloat, yet hundreds of thousands of jobs that need their graduates are going unfilled because so many kids have been told and told and told that they need college to get ahead, and are made to feel inferior if they'd prefer a trade.
I could get more into cases, but I suspect it would be redundant. Only about 1/4 of Americans benefit financially from going to college. There are others who benefit in other ways, because the acculturation of university study is broadening. But you can learn "liberal studies" at the library, or by joining a "Great Books" reading club. My Dad wrote a humorous piece and sent it to us when he turned 75, "Why I Didn't Go to College"; it closes with, "I was too busy making money." But he does mention his military years. Becoming a Captain in the Army is worth an MA degree any day! And the Army paid for it.
How to decide if college is right for you? If you didn't enjoy classwork in high school, you won't enjoy it at a university. If there is something you like to do, that people might be willing to pay you to do, where can you learn more about it? At college? Well and good, GO. At a trade school? Go there. Online? Do it! But above all, borrow only as a very last resort. It makes little sense to borrow $50,000-$200,000 so early in life, unless you were admitted to a very elite school with a very high ROI.
The last chapter of the book mentions MOOC's, Massive Open Online Courses. They are becoming a force that just might topple the more problem-ridden colleges, and that is a very good thing. They also open up very high level instruction, at very affordable cost or no cost, to everyone. The Stanford professor who first ran such a course has said that he brings Stanford-level instruction to 100 times as many students as could ever be admitted to Stanford. An increasing number of businesses are partnering with MOOC offerings, seeing the great results they bring.
Finally, you ought to know that the authors' viewpoint is conservative, as is mine. We need a dose of conservatism in higher education; rampant liberalism is responsible for the lack of oversight that led to the failures the book outlines. Ronald Reagan said it best: "When your car spins off the road into the ditch on the Left, you need a tow truck firmly on the Right to pull it back to center." Regardless of your politics, read this book, especially if you are a high school student wondering what to do next.