Higher Education: Cost vs. Benefit

How many college grads does it take . . .

For decades parents have pushed their kids toward college. For decades employers have cried out for better-educated workers. For decades, educators have steered students toward higher education whether they wanted it or not; whether they were equipped for it or not. Parents started saving for college educations, virtually, at conception. The federal government enticed young people to put their lives on the line in order to get a free college education.  And hordes of young people did just that.

Now, according to Daniel Pink, an author who writes about motivation in the workplace, a bachelor’s degree “does little more than verify that you can show up on time and stick with it.” A college degree is still desired by most employers, but it lacks the significance it once had.

Why so many college graduates?

Why are so many college graduates in the job market? One reason is supply and demand. The market place demanded college degrees, so the education system found a way to provide them. Unfortunately, degrees were provided by pushing through under-qualified students. After the 1970s, a four-year degree became what a high school diploma was in the 1950s. According to federal statistics, in 1973 only 47% of high school graduates went on to college. That number had risen to 70% as of October 2008.

Who can say what’s really in a college degree today? According to Marty Nemko, a career and education expert who has taught at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, “That piece of paper no longer means very much, and employers know that. Everybody’s got it, so it’s watered down.”

The irony of supply and demand

More people have pursued higher education, thus increasing the demand for a college degree. This increase in demand has driven up costs consistently since the 1970’s. Higher education costs rose an average of 6.5 % for the fall of 2009 and the amount of debt carried by graduates rose to an average of $23,200 in 2008. Ironically, as the cost of a degree has risen over the last 35 years its value has declined.

Return on investment

Is a college degree still worth it? Most employers still see it as a basic requisite for hiring and promoting. The question is moot from that perspective; but how much a dollar spent on education is actually buy in terms of career advancement can’t be answered if you can’t even get a job without one. Interestingly, the unemployment rate for recent college graduates was 10.6% or pretty much the national average for everyone. That figure is a record high, and it may, at a minimum, suggest that a college education does nothing to forestall a layoff.

What’s next?

According to a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute, 42% of college freshmen today plan on getting their master’s degree, up from 31% in 1972. Perhaps the one clear conclusion to drawn from this trend is that more parents with college students can delay making plans for an empty nest, since their fledglings won’t be getting jobs until age 24!

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