Sunday, November 6, 2011

Higher Education: Worth the Cost?

My niece is a high school senior and has been in the process of applying for college. Not long ago she asked me to take her to an open house at my alma mater, Fordham University.

When we got to Fordham, I couldn’t help but be impressed by how much the university had blossomed in the quarter century since I graduated. Fordham was always a great place to study as an undergraduate, if you wanted a strong liberal arts education grounded in the Jesuit tradition. Now, however, it has become a magnet university for some of the brightest and most talented students, not only in the United States, but from around the world.

So far, so good. It was when we started to add up the costs involved for attending a university like Fordham that red flags began to show themselves. Including room and board and various fees, a year at Fordham would set a student like my niece back almost $60,000. Over four years, that comes out to $240,000, which in many parts of the country could pay for a fairly substantial home.

If you think that sounds excessive, think again. Fordham’s tuition is quite in line with most comparable institutions. Tuition, even at a college like my own—which, it must be acknowledged, is somewhat less prestigious than Fordham—would cost $32,000 a year with room and board ($22,000 for tuition alone).

Other options, like public universities, do exist, and the cost at these universities are a bit less expensive than at private institutions like Molloy or Fordham. But tuition, room, and board at any of the schools associated with the State University of New York (SUNY) still comes out to about $21,000, even for residents of the state. Not exactly chump change by any means.

Of course, most colleges and universities offer financial aid and scholarships to make the price of their institutions more affordable to students. The fact remains, however, that even after the scholarships and grants, the cost of going to college in the United States will be one of the greatest financial burdens that most Americans will have to face in their lifetimes.

Given these costs, the real question is: Is going to college still worth it?

There’s no doubt that being saddled with all that debt when starting off a career certainly limits one’s options in life….And let’s not forget that there are plenty of men and women who still do pretty darn well in fields like plumbing, carpentry, and auto mechanics in which college degrees are not required….And let’s not even mention people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who succeeded quite admirably in life without the benefit of college educations at all.

Despite the admittedly high costs, however, getting a college degree still seems to make considerable economic sense. It has been estimated that someone who graduates from college with a bachelor’s degree can expect to earn about 66% more over the course of his or her working career than a non-graduate. According to a report entitled, "The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings", over the course of their adult work lives, high school graduates can expect to earn, on average, $1.2 million; those with a bachelor's degree, $2.1 million; and people with a master's degree, $2.5 million.

But the economic benefits are not the most persuasive argument in favor of higher education, as far as I’m concerned. The real argument for me is that graduating from a solid university—especially one that empahsizes training in the liberal arts—is going to be more important than ever in the future, as more and more lower level jobs that don’t require higher education are inevitably going to be shipped overseas. I believe that in the 21st century, the ability to think critically and creatively and to communicate effectively will become invaluable commodities in the global marketplace. And these are exactly the kinds of skills that a good liberal arts education from a decent college or university provides.

In the interests of full disclosure, it must be pointed out that my support for higher education is hardly unbiased, since I earn my living as a college professor. Fortunately, however, you don’t have to listen to my arguments. A colleague of mine, Dr. Mike Santaniello, who has been studying the impact of higher education on upward mobility for the past twenty years has just published a new work on the subject called College Bound and Moving Up. This book, which is written primarily for blue collar students and their families, uses hard data to show exactly how important higher education has been in the lives of working class people and how important it will continue to be in the future.

Santaniello’s work is a very good read—light-hearted, inspiring, and illuminating—and I’d highly recommend it for families that are struggling with the question of whether or not higher education is still worth it. After reading College Bound and Moving Up, there’s no doubt in my mind about the answer to that question. The only issue becomes how we can make college more affordable so that more Americans can take greater advantage of it’s benefits.

But that's the subject for a future post.

1 comment:

  1. i already have $80,000 in students loans and will have an education degree from Molloy that won't be worth squat when i graduate next year. how exactly am i going to be able to pay off these loans when there are no damn jobs out there right now???