Most of us have heard someone bring up the point of, perhaps strangely, foregoing college to make more money. The story goes you could start working at a McDonald’s straight out of high school, work your way up to a salary, becoming a general manager or maybe even owning your own store. All this is to say, college graduates aren’t necessarily guaranteed a better position than their non-college counterparts. And with the recent Newsweek headline, its interesting to consider just how worthwhile the college investment system is:
Why are we spending so much money on college?
And why are we so unhappy about it? We all seem to agree that a college education is wonderful, and yet strangely we worry when we see families investing so much in this supposedly essential good. Maybe it’s time to ask a question that seems almost sacrilegious: is all this investment in college education really worth it?
The answer, I fear, is that it’s not. For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus.
That’s pretty grim. Still, I’m not buying it. Not only do I think that continued education has an inherent value (full disclosure: serious bias coming from a graduate student), but I think that its more than just a matter of pure economic terms. It also matters how much effort one is willing to give to making their degree worthwhile. Leave it to the economist to say it better than I:
James Heckman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, has examined how the returns on education break down for individuals with different backgrounds and levels of ability. “Even with these high prices, you’re still finding a high return for individuals who are bright and motivated,” he says. On the other hand, “if you’re not college ready, then the answer is no, it’s not worth it.”
Neglecting the complexities of the borrowing market, the forced inflation of the costs of higher education and the unrestrained manner in which universities can raise their prices, and the potential of a looming student debt bubble, the short answer is: you get out what you put in.
While the mounting college debt is a serious concern, perhaps it would have been more beneficial for the Newsweek article to address some of the systematic deficiencies that have led to ever-inflating higher education costs. Education is an investment, not only for the individual but for the society. In my short time paying attention, I’ve seen an increasing disdain for funding of public education.
Its unfortunate, but the feeling of benefit from education has slipped away from the general populace. Gone are the days of the GI Bill and putting the country’s youth in school. I’d advocate for a renewed culture of investment, especially in higher education, through tax dollars. I realize the sweeping shift of tone I present here, but I maintain that an educated society is one of the most important investments we can make. I think the global implications of such focus are obvious.