The ‘Is College Worth It?’ Meme is Everywhere

OK, so this stuff is everywhere. Maybe a tipping point, or maybe just the recession has just made people pay more attention to what they got for their student loans, or maybe a simple sweeps month link to graduations.

Past stuff I have written on this down the path here.

The confluence of two factors made me start thinking about this: first, serving on the executive committee of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke several years ago during a period of budget cutting, and looking more closely at the the cost side of our academic enterprise. Second, having an 11th grader and helping (watching?) her think about where she wants to go to college, and listening to college tours through the ears of a parent. In doing this, I found myself saying (silently, I value my relationship with my daughter) Bullshit! quite a lot.

When I wrote that college tuition was a bubble, I was (and am) mostly thinking of the cost side of the college equation. There are many key issues, but I think the bottom line is that there are many things that are being done by research universities that are cross-subsidized in non transparent ways. I am less sure about small, teaching-focused liberal arts schools, meaning I just don’t know much about the cost side of their equation. My bottom line to my friends and colleagues in the academy is that we had better get out front of this and take seriously the notion that there may not always be an unlimited supply of people willing to pay the full freight private University tuition, especially at lower ranked ones with less expansive financial aid than the Ivies, etc.

Author: Don Taylor

Don Taylor is an Associate Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, where his teaching and research focuses on health policy, with a focus on Medicare generally, and on hospice and palliative care, specifically. He increasingly works at the intersection of health policy and the federal budget. Past research topics have included health workforce and the economics of smoking. He began blogging in June 2009 and wrote columns on health reform for the Raleigh, (N.C.) News and Observer. He blogged at The Incidental Economist from March 2011 to March 2012. He is the author of a book, Balancing the Budget is a Progressive Priority that will be published by Springer in May 2012.

27 thoughts on “The ‘Is College Worth It?’ Meme is Everywhere”

  1. IMHO what will start to squeeze colleges and universities is not so much the rising cost of tuition per se, but that rising coupled with uncomfortable questions about what the student is getting for his or her dollar. If every student who attended a high priced college was challenged and developed intellectually by engaged faculty in regular face-to-face interactions, came out of college with the ability to understand complex arguments (including but not limited to quantitative arguments), and with the ability to write and speak clearly and effectively, and if the typical recent college graduate had the demeanor and personal habits of a responsible adult, then one might think that the price tag was worth it. Human capital ain’t cheap, after all.

    But instead we have a very large % of the student populations at pricey colleges and universities who:

    A) Spend no more than 15 hours a week in the classroom and maybe (maybe) 10-15 additional hours a week studying
    B) Have never had a serious relationship (in some cases – a single serious conversation) with a tenured member of the faculty
    C) Are illogical in the extreme, and seem to have passed four years in college without ever having to defend a POV with rigor and structured argument
    D) Are functionally innumerate
    E) Cannot express themselves clearly, either verbally or in writing, on any topic that requires more than 1-2 sentences to explain
    D) Have the grammar and diction of a confused teenager and the work ethic of a slug

    Most jobs (even jobs that are not especially “appealing” in terms of pay or learning) force young people to apply themselves diligently for 40+ hours a week, interact seriously and effectively with adults much older than themselves, carry out tasks effectively (i.e. there are consequences if they fuck up), communicate their thoughts and generally behave and carry themselves as civilized people. Given that – if we take a typical kid who will go to an expensive college or university and look at his or her life between the ages of 18 and 26, and ask ourselves whether he or she made the most progress toward being a thoughtful and competent adult between ages 18 and 22 (when he or she was paying a college $30-50K per year), or between ages 22 and 26 (when an employer was paying him or her $30-50K per year), we would be hard pressed to conclude that the college or university is delivering much value.

    Or put another way – if we took two identical twin brothers of equal native intellectual ability, disposition and education through 18. One then entered the army for 4 years, during which time he received some sort of specialist training and was posted in an operational role with an active duty unit (including a year stationed overseas). The other attended Duke or Vanderbilt or Cornell or Oberlin (all fine schools), during which time he majored in whatever subject struck his fancy as a sophomore, engaged in typical student life and did a year’s “study” abroad as a junior.

    Which would you prefer to hire if you were running an enterprise (business, non-profit, government) and needed someone who could work reliably and effectively and solve novel problems with confidence and independence? Who would expect to be a more thoughtful and engaged citizen? Who would you trust more to marry your daughter? Who would be less likely to see their life blow up at age 24 from substance abuse?

    1. (it’s rare to agree with SD) I have only one minor objection:

      “Which would you prefer to hire if you were running an enterprise (business, non-profit, government) and needed someone who could work reliably and effectively and solve novel problems with confidence and independence? Who would expect to be a more thoughtful and engaged citizen? Who would you trust more to marry your daughter? Who would be less likely to see their life blow up at age 24 from substance abuse?”

      The problem is that the second is going to be the one hired for any and all white-collar jobs.

  2. I was actually with sd’s argument (not saying I agreed 100%, but thoughtful points) until he brought the Army into it. In my experience spending time in the armed forces produces outcomes in civilian life with about the same distribution of attitudes and capabilities as a good state university. Despite the yelling drill sergeants and structured life the army doesn’t have any magic formula for turning skaters-by into doers. And the last thing we need in our society is more fetishization of the military.


  3. With the last Cranky Offspring having just gone down this road I have a lot of sympathy with Don’s argument. However I would add a caution about a “winner take all” trap here: it would be of great benefit to the 0.4% to persuade the parents of the 20% to stop their children from applying to and attending Harvard, Stanford, etc (even Michigan) whilst the children of the privileged continued to do so.


  4. Personally, I don’t get it. I spent 10 years after high school working low-skill jobs while taking night classes. I had been a bright student, but a rebel – felt college was for the apparatchiks. I learned a lot – had many invaluable experiences. But wasn’t as productive as I’m sure I could have been. But I kept taking night classes and finally graduated at 28 with a B.S, and M.Ed., and $40k in federal loan debt. I can’t imagine who I would have been without the college courses I took – the readings, the professors, the students.

    We have an economic/social system that is totally fucked up – there are vast sectors of the economy that depend on low-skill labor, for which a large underclass is required, which will form a gradation of ghettos with enormous social costs. We don’t like talking about this, and thus rarely do. Some accept its tacit social Darwinism. Neo-liberals like to pretend social programs will solve it. If you look at the education debate, while education is the single greatest equalizing force we have, you continually hear the mantra “all children should go to college” (codified as “No Child Left Behind”). I’m 100% in agreement with the sentiment. But it is a fantasy; there aren’t enough jobs that require a college degree.

    But then you have the question of status. I live down the street from a painter. Painters are notorious for being depressed, often resorting to alcoholism. I have no idea if this is true or not, but I’ve worked enough boring jobs to know that when one’s mind is not engaged, work becomes psychologically painful. Some of the trades are indeed intellectually engaging and dynamic. But plenty are not. And plenty don’t pay all that well. Inevitably, the less work engages the mind, the less status it will have, and culture will be driven downwards. The socialist dream of dockworkers reading Focault and comparative religion is utopian. In my profession, it isn’t uncommon for colleagues to discuss high-brow topics at lunch. We go home and read books, we think critically about the films we watch and food we eat. I don’t think it is a coincidence that we have all gone to college, and been exposed to a world of higher-order thinking.

    Our children have higher vocabularies, more core knowledge, and will do better in school. This is the stuff of culture and class perpetuation. The same thing is happening, in reverse, among the dockworkers at lunch. Their children will have lower vocabularies, less core knowledge, fewer critical thinking skills, and lower test scores. It isn’t good for the country. It isn’t “organic”, it is determined.

    1. I’m not sure that simple work necessarily crushes the mind. In the UK of 100 years ago it was relatively common for Working Men’s Clubs and Miner’s Institutes to have libraries and host discussions on historical & philosophical questions. Many of the UK’s mid-century socialist Labour legends (e.g. Nye Bevan) acquired their grounding in political philosophy through this route. In my grandfather’s diary of that time he shows he lively interest in a wide range of subjects despite no secondary education and a grinding job as a blacksmith’s assistant. The difference then was that a relatively large number of bright, intellectually curious people were trapped in simple jobs by the class system.

      It may be that the rapid elimination of social mobility in the US will eventually see the same phenomonon recurring.

    2. In Lake Wobegone, all the children are above average. Here in the United States, only half of them are. I got huge amounts out of college – but I went in with the skills and social capitol to do it. I spent a couple of years at a state normal school, and I don’t think some of my classmates there were getting much out of it, nor that they were heading towards a much improved life which would justify the lost wages and time spent there. My later classmates at Berkeley were clearly getting more out of it.

    3. John, I didn’t mean to argue that simple work somehow sapped human capital. But it does segregate, and thereby limit opportunity the further down-capital you are. As you note with the term “trapped”, simple work for low pay will always be low-status.

      I think both Jon and Dave are on to something similar: that human and social capital begins long before one reaches adulthood. College, it seems, has become in many ways a proxy for socioeconomics. Today, a few generations without college education correlates highly with lower levels of human and societal* capital. Yet half a century ago, family college attendance would not have correlated so well. Yet, many worked on factory floors or in mines who did indeed have high levels of capital, which would have contributed to their cultural and social aspirations.

      If it is true that modern society requires a greater spectrum of skill-sets, then one would expect to see a larger gradation in mobility, especially if obtaining the skill-sets merely require a solid education and subsequent credentialing. (I use the term “merely” with reluctance, as education is largely dependent on robust levels of societal capital, which is inaccessible to many).

      Unfortunately, does this mobility gradation just make things that much worse for the low-capital? When high-capital workers toiled alongside low-capital workers, was there a net empowerment, via unions, etc.? Has the situation among the disadvantaged, low-capital population thus taken a net loss as opportunities for steady, decently-compensated income have disappeared into the knowledge-sector? In other words, were we before able to get by with a similar distribution of societal capital, where as now it isn’t sufficient, leading to large-scale breakdowns of family and impoverishment?

      *I recently discovered I was mistaken in my use of the term social capital. I was using it more expansively than appropriate. I now use the term “societal” capital, which I define in this blog entry:

  5. SD has a number of good points. I might have to hand in my membership card in the Great Pinko Conspiracy, but I agree with many of them.

    In my job, I am responsible for developing rookie lawyers. They almost always have gone to top schools, and have gotten top grades. They don’t suffer from SD’s problems, but I’ve noticed something. The stars disproportionately come from STEM fields, even though we are not a tech shop at all, and lawyers with STEM backgrounds are fairly rare. (I’m a STEM background myself, but I’m not the only person here who identifies these STEM kids as stars.)

    There are a number of factors that might explain it. I think that one of them is that most STEM departments expect a lot more out of their undergraduates than most humanities departments, and nearly all social science departments. (Philosophy, in my book, in an honorable exception, and I’ve seen some pretty rigorous history majors.) This is true even for the Ivies–or maybe especially for the Ivies, whose informal motto is: “Our Admissions Office never makes a mistake.” Most Ivy kids are pretty damn smart and survived a grueling admissions process. But many of them don’t work hard afterwards, whereas the STEM kids survived four years of subsequent intellectual close-order drill.

    1. The thing about STEM may not be the subjects themselves, but the performance measures. When I was in college, many moons ago, I majored in math, and one thing that clearly distinguished math classes from many others was that it was actually possible to make say, 40%, or even zero, on a math exam. That tended to focus the mind.

      1. I tend to agree. I myself double majored in a STEM field and a humanities field. The humanities field was tremendously enriching, and I think my life is the richer for having studied it. But the STEM field was MUCH more rigorous – with “rigorous” defined both as having a higher workload and as the possibility of there being a “wrong” answer to any given problem. Whatever I’ve taken away from college and benefited from professionally has come dis-proportionally from the STEM field.

        Now – one could have made the humanities work more rigorous – simply double the reading load and start grading papers and exams with shoddy arguments and poor mastery of the underlying texts VERY harshly. But for some reason that seems to run against the culture of most humanities departments. Perhaps because a STEM professor can have a TA grade assignments and exams harshly, and know that there will be little dispute as to the outcome, whereas a humanities professor is afraid to allow a TA to be a hard-ass (because the student can always argue against a grade) and too stretched or lazy to grade the work himself/herself.

        1. SD,
          Maybe your humanities work did more for you than you think. One great failing I’ve found with many of the STEM people I know is an intolerance of ambiguity. (“Wrong answers”, y’know.) The STEM lawyers I mentioned above generally don’t suffer from this. Maybe it is a selection effect, or maybe law school makes a difference; I don’t know. But I’ve seen it in many STEM types, although some are free of it without ever darkening a law school door. Humanities might inoculate?

  6. Okay, the previous posters who majored in what they think were extra tough areas believe those areas are highly difficult and superior.

    But, that’s not really related to the topic raised originally which is, in part, is the market for college students about to take a big dive?

    And, given the costs for college these days and economic outlooks for college grads to make money is going to college a reasonably defensible position?

    Me, I would think long and hard before suggesting a kid go to Berkeley today if it means racking up a hundred grand or more in debt, debt which may haunt them for many years.

    When I went to Cal it was effectively free which made going, for me, a no-brainer.

    But, since then the powers that be have changed plans and now seem to like the idea of limiting college access and pinning grads with big debts. Perhaps this is thought to make college students and grads less likely to cause trouble–although, as I am far from the first to note, discouraging higher education is not wise economic policy.

    1. No. I don’t think a math major was “superior,” in some vague sense. What I was getting at was that grading standards allowed for the possibility of getting a bad grade – an F even – in the class. That is inherent in any class where you can just get it wrong.

      Can that be generalized to other classes? Maybe. Certainly, again speaking from my 1960’s college experience, it was possible to make bad grades in “softer” subjects as well.

      Grade inflation has a lot to answer for.

      1. You are pretty much right here, and above. I went to a state school that is Top 50 on the US News list and is Top 20 public. I got a degree in a subject which, on paper at least, looks practical and possibly rigorous. And yet here’s what I can tell you about my degree: it would have been very hard to fail anything but the few classes I had to take in the hard sciences if you put in even a moderate amount of effort. Now granted, plenty of people got Cs in many classes, and in my experience, in my field, one would find it very challenging to get hired with anything less than a 3.0. But of course, part of the point of the failing grade at the university level is supposed to be to weed out people who aren’t cut out for what they’re doing before they waste four years at it.

        And H, that is why it is relevant. One side of the “is it worth it” coin is: is the debt burden at elite institutions now so high that it will discourage talented people who do not come from wealth from enrolling in the best schools? But the other is: are there people currently spending four years in college racking up debt who don’t really belong in college at all? This discussion speaks to the latter. That said, the answer to both is almost certainly yes.

  7. The biggest problem that I am seeing myself is that we’re lacking a good alternative to college education; an accepted and respected “Plan B” for vocational training.

    There are a few ad-hoc options, but there’s nothing that seriously competes with college for a place on your résumé. I.e., something that you can do without having held a job previously and that in the end significantly improves your chances of getting a job that allows you to support yourself/a family.

    It is worth noting that even at Thiel Capital they wanted the ideal candidate for an analyst position to have a college degree (until Matthew Yglesias noticed and the ad was hastily corrected).

    This situation shifts the supply/demand curve towards college being a seller’s market.

    1. Isn’t “Plan B” community college, at least in part? The Economist has a bit of a fetish for American CC’s. My wife, who has SB’s and MA’s from MIT and Berkeley, didn’t want to go back to engineering after several years of raising the kids and is finishing up a program of graphic/web design. There were several other parents in her classes with the same idea (probably facing the challenge of paying to put their kids through college), but most of the students were young adults who were upgrading their skills and resumes with pretty good bang for the buck. Massachusetts may well have a stronger than average CC network, but surely other states have the same thing (barring CA, of course, which has gutted anything to do with education).

      1. Community College is helpful, but insufficient on its own. When you hear about 40% of Americans of age 25 or older having a college degree, that does include associate degrees (which about 10% of the 25+ population have). That leaves 60% of the population without either a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree. Note that if you’re looking at only Americans aged 25-34, there’s still about 40% having a college degree — the situation is not improving.

        While Community Colleges also award professional certificates in addition to associate degrees, the number of certificates awarded is much smaller than that of associate degrees.

        Contrast that with the apprenticeship programs or vocational schools in continental Europe, where you can generally expect 80%-90% of the age 25+ population to either have a college degree or credentialed vocational training [1].

        [1] The downside of the European models is that they tend to be far more rigid and make changing careers more difficult, especially later in life.

        1. As usual, Katja has a good point.

          About 4 CEOs ago, JP Morgan’s Chief Poohbah did not have a college degree. A fellow named Weatherstone. It would never have done in America, but he was a Brit, and back from the days when the UK only sent about 3% to University.
          I remember when I started out as a scientist (in my youth, where we studied phlogiston), I worked in perfectly good labs where fairly senior people only had MA degrees. That would never happen today.

  8. College never was “worth it” in the vernacular sense. Americans are oblivious to the reality that, in an expanding economy made possible by abundant cheap energy, college was ” worth it” only because it didn’t produce crippling debt while letting high schoolers mature a bit before entering the world of careers. In the relentlessly contracting economy that youth will experience from here out (now that the days of abundant cheap energy are gone) college is still not worth it, but to an even greater degree, because it both saddles youth with crippling debt and fails to do anything about securing good prospects for graduates.

    Asking anyone in academia about whether college is worth it is like asking a realtor(TM) whether now is a good time to buy a home. Funny how the answer is always the same, regardless of conditions.

  9. How did we get this many comments, without directly addressing the elephant in the room: What is the degree in?

    We’ve got all this talk of “college degrees”, as though they were interchangeable commodities. But the truth is, unless you’re pursuing a degree in something people will pay you to do, a college degree isn’t much more than a very expensive luxury good. And unless you’re pursuing a degree in something where success is at least moderately difficult, eventually people are going to figure out that the credential you’re obtaining doesn’t really say anything beyond, “This dude was willing to blow a lot of money on something worthless.”

    I read that the majority of unemployed today have college degrees. But they don’t say which degrees. I’m guessing it’s not “petroleum engineer”.

    1. Brett,
      Be more precise. There were about seven posts upthread that discussed what the degree was “in.”

      However, these seven posts were all talking about the quality of the education. I think you are more interested in the attractiveness of the degree to the employer. They are two different subjects. Philosophy is damned rigorous, but also pre-unemployment. Undergrad business degrees are not very rigorous, but for some reason, employers like them.

      And finally, your “unless you are pursuing a degree in something people will pay you to do, a college degree [is worthless]” is flat-out wrong. Physics is a pre-unemployment major if you want to do physics. But although few employers will pay anybody to do physics, they are often happy to pay physics majors to do other things.

      1. “a college degree [is worthless]”

        Note the brackets. They represent the alteration of what I actually said.

        A college degree in something which won’t result in income is indeed a luxury good. Luxury goods are scarcely “worthless”, they are merely “luxuries”.

        But a willingness of someone who hasn’t got huge amounts of disposable income to spend a fortune on a luxury good is something of a red flag to employers, and properly so: If you’re not minimally frugal with your own money, you’ll scarcely be showing good judgement with somebody else’s.

        And last time I looked, physics degrees were more than moderately difficult.

  10. For those who are not Brett, please note that petroleum engineer has at times been a one-way ticket to the unemployment line (whenever oil is cheap). In the particular case of that major, given that we many never see cheap oil again, it’s probably highly employable.

  11. My thought here is that “worth it” needs a better measure of opportunity cost. As long as the current series of lost decades continues, with a reserve army of the unemployed at all levels, we’re talking about choosing between bad outcomes and horrible outcomes. But college loans do generate more income for the financial industry to siphon off…

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