A college education is one of life’s largest expenses and probably the biggest source of personal debt next to houses. The costs are all over the board and generally greater for
private schools than public. Just out of curiosity and because it has a good reputation (at least it did 25 years ago) I checked on Westminster College, a Liberal Arts school in Fulton, MO. About $30,000 a year, with about $18,000 of that being just the tuition and the rest living and expenses. So, for a 4-year degree: $120,000, not counting iPad, software and beer.
Is a college degree worth the effort, time and cost? I was inspired to ask the question by an article in USA Today, “. . . We Object“, about law school graduates complaining that either they couldn’t get a job after graduation (12 % of 2009 graduates) or that their schools’ predictions about salaries didn’t pan out. Included in the article was this:
“Ohio University economist Richard Vedder says the question goes beyond law. ‘We are entering the age of the overeducated American, the person with college degrees who cuts hair, trims trees, drives trucks,’ he says.”
I have talked to more than one waitress in local Joplin restaurants who claims to have a college degree. We know of one such who earned a degree in accounting, did that for a
few years and recently resigned her position to do something entirely unrelated (and requiring no degree at all). This is not a good statistical sample of course but it does tend to confirm my impression that not only isn’t a college degree what it used to be, it can be a bad investment. (It may also say that colleges don’t do a good job of helping students match talent to career.)
What about the intangible value of a degree improving one’s taste and capacity for making good choices and appreciating the more intellectual aspects of life in general? What a
quaint idea. Some used to think that the mark of a good education was that it made you autodidactic. Does one get that from a college degree nowadays? I searched Westminster’s web site for some indication that they have a core curriculum and couldn’t find one. (Core curricula used to exist. When did they go away?) By core curriculum I mean some minimal coverage of, say, English, government and math that would be common to all majors and would mark a graduate as more rounded and complete, intellectually, than non-graduates. I did find a provision for a “self-designed” major. Apparently a major can now be whatever one wishes it to be, a’ la Humpty Dumpty.
About 10 years ago I made a point of visiting the Joplin High School office to search their curriculum for similar core courses and also came up empty. I don’t know if that has changed since, but I read the Joplin Globe every day and don’t recall seeing anything about it. If I am wrong, and I may be, somebody please tell me.
So, why shell out that kind of money? Toga parties? For years the media has reinforced the adage that higher education pays off in higher salaries throughout life. But Mr. Vedder may be right that this effect has diminished. For generations the education establishment has touted the earnings-value of a degree, but without meaningful standards the argument is wearing thin, and in the meantime the cost of higher education has been rising faster than the cost of living. A 2006 report, “Trends In College Pricing”, (page 4)confirms it:
“The data in this report confirm the widespread perception that college prices are rising much more rapidly than the prices of other goods and services. Like last year’s increases, the 2006-07 increases in tuition and fees are smaller than those of many recent years. That said, the 35 percent jump in inflation-adjusted average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges since 2001-02 is the largest for any five-year period over the 30 years covered by this report.”
And I’m betting the cost has not gone down since 2006.
Where does the students’ money go? I surmise that the bulk of it goes to the salaries of professional educators, both teachers and management. And because of the
susceptibility of the public to branding, consumerism not being taught in high school, I suggest that much of the cost of the more expensive schools is based not on substance but on prestige. The quality of education at the more-expensive schools, where most courses are taught not by big-name professors but assistants, is a cultural meme in America and is similar to jewelry-store snob appeal.
Such schools capitalize on their prestige to skim the cream of talent from the pool of applicants. In other words, I am suggesting that graduates of schools such as Harvard,
Yale, Princeton and Stanford are not better-taught, but that they succeed because they survived the winnowing process and then bought into a label of success. Because of their prestige these schools have an effective monopoly on a product that is highly valued, not for its substance but for its label. What a business! In what other field can you have both monopoly and tenure?
I have long been a critic of our high schools for not teaching consumerism, among other practical subjects. If that ever does happen, the value of higher education should be a prime topic, IMO.