“I trust you to use good judgment.”
My mother would say this when I would announce I was taking an eight-hour drive by myself or going on a blind date. Her tone communicated what her words didn’t: whether she thought my anticipated adventure was a good idea, questionable or downright unwise.
If she’d read the dire pronouncements about the declining value of a college degree, she might have said the same thing when I told her I’d decided to turn down the two years of free community college I’d been offered and major in English at a private school instead.
As you help your high school student figure out what’s next, have you wondered if college is really the wisest choice? The cost of tuition continues to rise faster than inflation, financial aid and income, according to the College Board’s most recent Trends in Higher Education report. And tuition isn’t the only expense. There’s room and board, class and activity fees, and textbooks. In addition, for many students, time spent in college means time out of the workforce. College is a significant financial investment.
The word “investment” usually reassures parents and students. An investment is something you sacrifice now in hopes of seeing positive returns later. But we’ve all heard about young people going into debt to earn an expensive degree and then, unable to find a job in their field, settling for work as a barista (a terrific job, but a college education isn’t required).
The exception and the rule
If you’ve seen the film He’s Just Not That into You, you’ll remember Alex advising his friend Gigi not to pin her hopes on romantic stories where people defy the odds and find love in unexpected ways. “Those stories are the exception. You’re the rule,” he says bluntly.
We should keep Alex’s advice in mind when we hear horror stories about the return on investment of a college degree. Are there people out there with $100,000 history degrees working at Starbucks, worried they won’t be able to pay off their loans? Absolutely. And if you know someone in this situation, you know how very real and frustrating it is.
But what if that story is the exception? What if the odds of being crushed by student loan debt are actually much smaller than the horror stories suggest? What if the “rule,” as the 2016 College Board report outlines, is that a significant percentage of student borrowers (38 percent) owe less than $10,000 in student loans? What if the “rule” is that those borrowing in the $100,000 range are primarily graduate students, not undergraduates? (And many of those grad students will enter highly paid, specialized fields like occupational therapy, pharmacology or civil engineering.) In fact, the College Board discovered that the average student borrower pays off their loans and recoups the money lost from being out of the workforce by the time they’re 34.
Okay, you think, maybe my student won’t be crushed by loan debt, especially if they keep their options open and consider in-state public schools and community colleges. But aren’t there appealing alternatives to higher education?
It’s true that many good jobs don’t require college degrees. Real estate agents, law enforcement officers, property managers, electricians and any number of mechanic, installation or repair occupations require on-the-job training, apprenticeships or certification programs in lieu of a traditional four-year degree. Even in fields traditionally requiring degrees, you may know of marketers who never studied marketing, self-taught website developers, and entrepreneurs who created successful businesses out of trial-and-error and a little bit of genius. But although it’s certainly possible to bring home a good paycheck without a college degree, what if, once again, these careers and stories are the exception?
National averages (“the rule”) have shown that people with a bachelor’s degree make 67 percent more than those with just a high school diploma. Even within the same company or industry, employees with four-year degrees are higher up on the pay scale than those without, according to the College Board report. Across ten different job categories (ranging from retail sales to sales reps and first-line supervisors), those with a bachelor’s degree consistently made more than those with a high school diploma.
In addition, the unemployment rate for those with bachelor’s degrees is significantly lower than for those with just a high school diploma. The College Board reports that “in 2015, when the unemployment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree was 2.6 percent, 8.1 percent of high school graduates in this age range were unemployed.” Your chances of being unemployed are more than twice as high without a four-year degree. Not only that, but the number of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree is growing. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that “by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.”
Rather than decreasing, it seems that the value of a college degree is only increasing. Why? What makes a four-year degree so beneficial?
College provides unique resources
In addition to the fact that most employers in high-paying fields are looking for degree holders, college provides skills and resources that set students up for career success. One benefit of college is the interaction with dozens of professors who are experts in their industry. Most professors have helpful contacts and are willing to write recommendation letters and offer advice about applying to and working in their industries. As a networking opportunity alone, college could very well pay for itself.
Another advantage is that simply being a college student can open doors to internships, interviews and other career opportunities. Alexis Grant, staff writer for U.S. News, writes that many contacts — some of whom may be alumni of the college — are more willing to meet with and advise someone who is a current student. In addition, many schools either host or will help students attend conferences in their field, another excellent opportunity for networking. The potential to connect with influential professionals is rarely stronger than during college.
College helps cultivate essential skills
Lastly, regardless of your student’s major, college helps cultivate skills that will serve them well in any career. While some of these skills will be developed by taking specific courses that emphasize writing, speaking and research, other skills will be honed by the college experience as a whole: managing time and meeting deadlines, responding to constructive feedback, being organized, working in teams and groups, being assertive, and thinking critically and creatively.
Can these skills be learned outside of the college experience? Of course. But college provides a particularly rich environment in which to master them, and a college degree documents quality time spent in this environment.
There’s no doubt that college is an investment. It requires a significant financial sacrifice up front. But the second aspect of an investment — the reward you expect to reap later — is equally true of college. College places your student in a fertile networking environment, helps cultivate skills and habits that make them a valuable employee, and provides the baseline they need to apply for most high-paying jobs. David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, heartily agrees: “For all the struggles that many young college graduates face, a four-year degree has probably never been more valuable.”