Is college worth it?

Pew Research is out with a survey today that says the majority of people surveyed do not think college is a good value. For some reason it also surveyed college presidents who said — surprise — it is a good value.

How does anyone know?

Any question framed like that requires the respondent to know what is a good value. When you try to buy a car and the salesman says “I can put you in this little number for only $30,000,” it may be obvious to you that a 1975 Datsun isn’t worth $30,000. When you tell our salesperson that, he’ll say, “what will it take for you to drive home in this car today?”

Now, maybe the answer is a fast-moving flood, or maybe it’s the $5 of bus fare you have in your pocket, but you have some idea what the value of the car is before you decide the asking price isn’t a good value.

One suspects that people who answer Pew’s question don’t have an idea of the value.

2011-higher-ed-01-17.png Seventy-five percent of those who took part in the Pew survey said it’s too expensive. Fifty-seven percent said college isn’t a good value today. That means almost 20 percent of those surveyed think it’s too expensive, but it’s still a good value. How can it be too expensive and still be a good value?

Eight-six percent of college graduates said college is or was a good investment.. But 57 percent said they’d rather work and make money than, presumably, going to college. Is this the same 57 percent who said college isn’t a good value? The survey says the percentage who don’t think it’s a good value is about the same among those who went to college and those who did not.

And yet most college graduates think they’re earning $20,000 more a year thanks to going to college. Most non-attendees think they’re earning $20,000 less. In addition, most graduates say that their college education was very useful in helping them grow intellectually (74%), mature as a person (69%) and prepare for a job or career (55%).

So most college grads think they earn more, more think college is worth it even though it’s expensive, most think it helps them grow intellectually, most think it helps people mature and most think it prepares them for a job or career. And yet, most don’t think it’s a good value.

It’s time for the car salesman approach here to figure out the role of higher education. If you don’t think it’s worth it now, what’s it going to take for you to drive home with this degree today?

  • Jamison

    What about all the recent news stories lately saying that college graduates are faring better in the job market than people without a degree? Shouldn’t that impact the idea of “value”?

  • BJ

    Nice tie in with the shortage of skills from 5×8.

  • mary

    It seems to be a no win situation. If you go to college and get a degree, you have a huge amount of debt to pay off. On the other hand, if you don’t have a degree, you will most likely not be hired for a good paying job.

    Even entry level positions require a degree of some kind.

    Lately, as I have looked at available job openings, there seems to be an overwhelming need for welders. I guess the solution is to go to trade school and learn how to weld.

  • JackU

    It seems to me that we live in a society that has less respect for all things intellectual. One thing I didn’t notice in the results was if there is a breakdown in the general respondents as to whether they are college graduates or not. (I may have missed it.)

    When many aspects of popular culture play up “Joe Six-pack” and the “Animal House” view of college life you can see how people would think that it is not a good value. Still I would be curious to know what the splits are for people who have a) never gone to college, b) attended college for a time but did not graduate and c) earned a degree. I just have a feeling that the most negative will come from the second group and the most positive from the third group.

  • MommyLisa

    I agree with Mary – I just finished my degree in March 2010. I thought when I went back to college it would be a great idea and would open doors that had been closed to me in the past. *notsofast* changed jobs prior to completing degree, lost that job and then had to take the lesser of two evil jobs that has meant a $20k DECLINE in salary and almost nil in bonus compensation.

    Despite having finished SUMMA CUM LAUDE I cannot find another job.

    And I have $50k of college debt.

    Go me!

  • RadioNed

    Was *just* having this conversation over coffee break this morning. Thanks for the timely info.

  • kennedy

    It depends on the degree, how much it costs, and what you do with (or get out of) all that learning.

    Of course most people who ponied up for a college education will tend to say it was worth it. No one wants to admit to wasting time/money.

  • Bob Collins

    // most people who ponied up for a college education will tend to say it was worth it.

    But in this case you have people saying it was “worth it” while saying it wasn’t a “good value.” How can that possibly be?

  • John P.

    It’s not as “worth it” as it used to be.

    I could simply not afford to send my son to the same local private college that I worked my way through. I worked part time during the year and full time summers. I graduated with NDSL loans with far below market rates and amounting to about 3 months salary after I graduated. The same school now gets over 20 times what I paid per year. You just can’t do it by carrying out groceries (if such a thing still exists) any more. He chose a cheaper route, but we are still into student loans for a long time to come.

    For many it’s impossible, so you probably convince yourself it’s not worth it.

  • Sara

    I think the divide between “worth it” and “good value” is this: the debt is onerous, but what is the alternative? In that respect, it’s worth it because without it you’re in trouble – but it holds you financial hostage for the next 20 years.

    Just wait, though. More and more jobs are requiring Masters degrees and that is more time and more money – further entrenching power with those who have the time/money to go through 6+ years of postsecondary work (in other words, those at the top can continue drawing a line for success that many cannot afford to get to).

    Personally, I greatly value higher education, but there have to be options for people who do not come from means or we’ve achieved a caste system. We may already be there.

    In short: education is worth it for social, personal, and financial reasons – but it isn’t a good value.

  • bsimon

    I expect these numbers to change over time, inversely correlated to unemployment rate changes.

    When I graduated from college, in 1992, I spent 9 months doing temp work at rates averaging around $8 per hour. That’s also what I made in a cheese factory in the summer of 1990. Take the lost income that I didn’t earn during 4 years of college, add the cost of college, and clearly, in 1992, my college degree was a poor investment. But in 1993 I got a job for a software consulting firm for $28K. It didn’t take long for the college degree’s value to change to ‘worth it’.

  • kennedy

    People are not always logical and can easily do the mental gymnastics to label something both “worth it” and “not a good value”.

    What percentage of people do you think would call gasoline a “good value”?

    What percentage of people do you think would say it is “worth it” to buy fuel for their vehicle?

    The questions can be construed to mean different things.

  • Bob Collins

    Bingo. The question mean different things to different people so polls that use them as an answer are by definition, worthless.

    Beyond that, however, they don’t even make sense to the people who are using them. They’re more emotional values than they are definable ones. If they were, someone in the thread would’ve answered the question by now about what constitutes fair or good value and what constitutes “worth it.”

    People don’t know. They have a difficult time defining things; it is not as difficult to define what something isn’t.

  • matt

    A college degree has been cheapened being nothing more than a line on a resume and therefore is a strict economic value proposal. If you spend 4 years gaining knowledge and actualizing (at a university, in a library or on a mountain) you have gained a huge amount of value to which cost becomes immaterial. Since our values have been co-opted by commercialism we are forced to even consider the question is college worth it.