What’s college good for these days?

Is college worth it? My MPR colleague Mike Caputo’s been talking to Minnesotans in our Public Insight Network this week about the value of higher learning in this recession. Here’s his report:

Remember those college years when your uncle told you to dream big and learn about life while in school? What would he say in 2009, when college leaves you with a big debt and diminished job prospects?

Let’s face it, this recession has put a thumb on the scales we use to assess college; the one with “go to train your mind” on one side and “go to get a job” on the other. Practicality is winning the day.

Take David Greenley of Minneapolis. The 30-year-old Army vet once advocated getting a college degree to expand the mind – explore the future. But not anymore.

Greenley, a laid-off worker in the midst of getting an associates degree, says he wants a vocational education because “that … will give me a chance to make it during the recession.”

Others are recalculating their reasons to get a degree because College costs are soaring, college loans are more burdensome and jobs for graduates aren’t as plentiful. Minnesotans especially notice the financial weight because they borrow more for a degree.

More than two-thirds of MN seniors came out of a public college with student loans – and that debt averaged nearly $23,000, according to a study by the state’s Office of Higher Education. That’s 11 percent more in cumulative dollars than those who graduated from public schools in comparable states. The debt spread is even greater – 19 percent – when you look at private college debt.

Even the cost of attending community college, like Greenley is doing, is higher in this state than most others. Minnesota has one of the most expensive two-year systems in the country.

The cost of college – and what it pays for – has left Heather Ratz sounding bitter. The Winona woman graduated with a graphic design degree from Winona State but in a few years that her education emphasized theory at the expense of technique.

She went for a master’s degree and also thought the courses lacked real world application. She’s taken a job outside her dream field to pay off the “loans upon loans” she’s collected. It’s shaken her belief in lifelong learning.

Those who went to college with idealism have found the financial burden to be almost a rebuke of the decision. Amy Salmey of Inver Grove Heights says the nearly $400 a month student loan payment she makes for her psychology/social work degrees as put a chill in her zeal for the work.

And yet, while the recession may have skewed the argument about the meaning of college, still some believe in college’s loftier aims.

Greg Boone is a Minnesotan who entered Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter with the idea of training for a career. He was moved away from that view during his courses in education. Now he teaches English in South Korea and says that he’s convinced that college’s best reason for being is to train people for a life of learning and to find a true calling.

“Colleges like Gustavus prepare students to approach the world with an open and enlightened mind. All of these schools think that the liberal arts approach is the best approach because it uniquely prepares students for a future of life-long learning, which is infinitely more valuable for some employers than anything else.”

What calculus are you making as you decide on college for yourself or your child? How do graduates see their college experience six months or sixteen years since getting that sheepskin? Tell us your story here.

BONUS INFO: MPR’s Midmorning program on Thursday examined the links between college and financial success. Check it out.

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