We've all heard stories about people dropping out of college to start multi-million dollar businesses. People like Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs who threw off the chains of higher education and got right down to making money. These stories lead some people to conclude that a college education isn't necessary. That all you really need to succeed is grit, grind and old-fashioned street smarts. That college is just a waste of money.
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The past few years have been pretty
rough on the English major. About 50,000 students earn bachelor’s degrees in English annually, comprising only about 3% of all college graduates nationwide. This is a sharp decline from 45 years ago, when the share of English majors was closer to 8%. To put it mildly, faculty in English departments across the country have noticed.
Worry about student debt continues to negatively impact enrollment for colleges of all types, according to an annual survey recently published by Inside Higher Ed. The 2016 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors asked 339 admissions directors (or those with equivalent titles) about issues relevant to their profession: particularly, the growing impact of debt on students’ enrollment decisions.
It’s become quite popular to blame student debt for holding back young adults’ abilities to own homes. But the debate on student debt and homeownership tends to err in focusing on the detriments of student debt, rather than the benefits that come with having a college education.
Paying for college can seem daunting considering the seemingly endless stories of college graduates burdened with incredible amounts of student debt. But are these anecdotes really representative of the norm? Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York don’t think so.
The value of a college degree is well–documented, but new research from Goldman Sachs appears to further fuel the college-value debate. The findings estimate that today’s college graduates, on average, don’t “break even” on the costs of a bachelor’s degree until age 31 – a full year longer than it took the Class of 2010. To Goldman researchers this represents a worsening trend – if sustained, in 15 years the average graduate won’t break even until age 33, and the Class of 2050 won’t recoup their costs until age 37.
But research like this, although helpful, tends to overlook a crucial question: what's the cost of not going to college?
It comes as little surprise that the Great Recession had a significantly negative impact on employment opportunities. The peak of the downturn’s effect on underemployment occurred in 2010, when about 10% of college graduates were considered “underemployed” (i.e. unemployed, working part-time or not seeking employment), according to a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.
According to the 2015 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, the challenges facing college admissions leaders just keep growing, in contrast to shrinking enrollments. Roughly half (51%) of admissions directors surveyed reported being very concerned about meeting their enrollment goals for the 2015-16 academic year. What’s worse, 58% said they failed to meet their goals this year.
What explains these widespread enrollment losses?
If one of the world’s most famous college dropouts isn’t skeptical about the value of college, why should anyone be? According to New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, the economy is not a zero-sum game. That is, a well-educated workforce is not one in which college graduates are forced to fight over a fixed number of good jobs; instead, sustained investments in higher education lead to richer, healthier and better functioning societies over time.
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A new survey of adults without a college degree found that the vast majority - 84% - believe that some form of postsecondary education is needed to get a good job. But just 60% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that a college education was worth the cost, and 43% were satisfied with only a high school degree themselves.
When asked to estimate the cost of tuition and fees at a local community college, 51% overestimated the cost, and about 28% were unable to even make an estimate. Exaggeration of the student debt ‘crisis’ by the news media may be at least partially to blame for these findings. A Hamilton Place Strategies report demonstrated, for instance, that the average level of student debt reported in news coverage is $85,400, a gross exaggeration of the actual average student debt level of $29,400.
Whatever the cause, higher education is more commonly (and incorrectly) perceived as financially unattainable. If this trend continues to impact enrollment decisions, it threatens to impair not only non-graduates’ financial well-being, but the vitality and stability of the American economy itself.
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Just how much is college worth? About twice as much as it was in the 1960s, according to the latest Economic Report of the President, a report released annually by The White House. Among the topics examined was the college wage "premium," which serves as an indicator of the economic value of a college degree. This figure is calculated by finding the difference in income between college graduates and those with only high school degrees. The following chart shows the change in the college wage premia for men and women from 1963 to 2013.