Monday, August 06, 2007

Thoughts On Higher Education

Some catch up stuff: My response to A Fan For All Season's comment on college education from way before the bar exam. I wrote most of this back in June but never got around to posting it.

More people are going to college, but back in the 50s-60s, it wasn't necessary to go to college. My father, for example, didn't go to college and his family lives in suburban Connecticut, he put 5 kids through college (3 out of state) and has retired at 62. Stories like that are probably more common/similar from people his age than it will be for people my age. Nowadays, almost every job description will say "college-degree required/preferred". Employers are far more likely to take a college grad than someone with just a high school diploma or GED. Also, a lot of people going to college can't afford it. I'd guess a large percentage of college grads were on financial aid and I'm betting a lot of them have a lot of student loans to pay off.

I thought this was worth a separate post because this is a topic that's been in the news a great deal lately. The mainstream media has joined the ranks of parents and students who have been worrying about the price of college education for over a generation. It's an interesting story, because, at times, it can even paint even the upper-middle class as victims. (And for me, it's odd to see the kids that grew up in nicer houses than I did, drove nicer cars than I did, and went to more expensive schools than I did - painted as victims.)

It is true that many more jobs today require a college degrees than in the past- but remember this is in response to 1- cultural changes that have made college a virtual requirement in most circles and 2- the fact that so many people do go to college makes the non-college grads less attractive as prospective employees than ever before. (In other words, a college degree is a requirement because so many people are going to college.) I for one would question whether this intense emphasis on college is needed. I seriously doubt whether the college required by many of today's employers amount to anything more than a certificate to work- I think a vast majority of people learn on the job and use very few of the skills they learned (or were supposed to learn) in college.

That all being said, this is the world we've created and we've got to live in it. And I think the question of the affordability of college is a very different sort of question. People complain about the burden, but I rarely see any analysis of whether or not that financial burden is worth it. Let's just play with some imaginary numbers for a minute. Let's say you're $150,000 in debt from your student loans (including all of the interest). If the job you get out of college can make you $15,000 more per year than you would be able to make without a college degree, then after ten years you'd have your loans paid off and you'd be better off than you would have been if you chose not to go to college. And if college isn't worth it, then why go in the first place.

The problem is, not enough people see college as an investment even though that's precisely what it is. And the real question is, at what point is your investment in college going to get you out of the red and put you in the black. If you graduate from a small but expensive liberal arts school, and proceed to work at Barnes and Noble for the next twenty years, your investment in college was not worth it. If you go to a state school, and get a good job in the technology/computer field, than your education was probably worth every penny.

And of course, the rich can afford to go to expensive schools and get worthless degrees ... and most of the rest of us can't. But that's just like everything else in life- the rich have time and money that the rest of us just don't have. The rich can afford not to work and not to worry about their future income.

In case anyone is wondering, I do think college is far more expensive than it needs to be, and that this is mostly the result of unneeded bureaucracy, government subsidies, and just plain inefficient administration. That being said, for a great number of people, an overpriced college education is still beneficial. I think a lot of us are just spoiled- we want our salaries, all our toys goodies, and we don't want to have to pay back our student loans. And some of us also just want to plain live off the government.

I agree with anyone who says that barriers to access to college should be eliminated - but that's not the issue du jour. The issue of today is the poor, unfortunate middle class, and how it's not fair that the wealthiest middle class in the history of the world can't have more money in their pockets.


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