When does a college education no longer seem worth the cost?

Last year, two-thirds of students who earned bachelor’s degrees graduated in debt. And total student-loan debt surpassed total credit card debt for the first time. Today’s Question: When does a college education no longer seem worth the cost?

  • Hiram

    “When does a college education no longer seem worth the cost?”


  • Wade

    Hiram, now that’s funny.

    It’s not worth it the second you’ve paid more for the degree than you’ll make in your first year of work. It’s definitely counter productive if you owe more in student loan debt than you are going to make in the first year.

    I’m not sure how young people can make it when they have huge amounts of debt over their head. I’m talking about industry professionals.

    Physicians come out of school with mind boggling debt which they may never pay off. On top of that, a general family practice physician actually looses money ($75,000 – $125,000) over their career for their employer.

    Not good numbers.


  • Steve

    It’s not worth it when you see the bill from the plumber who dug up and repaired your septic system. Especially when he tells you it’s a good thing you caught him the last week in September, because he goes hunting for six weeks in October and November every year…….

  • David

    How about changing the equation a bit and make education free, like in some other countries, Wouldn’t that benefit students and society? We would have a more educated citizenry, one that would be less debt-ridden…

  • Shane

    It doesn’t seem worth it when you realize you’re not able to afford a house because of your monthly student loan payments.

  • nt

    All you kids out there. Ask to see the job placement data on where graduates of your college and university get jobs. Don’t settle for the glossy flyer they offer first, instead, ask for the actual databook. You’ll likely notice two things: (1) Chemistry, Physics, Nursing, Math, and Engineering majors all seem to be fully employed, and (2) the world doesn’t need more biology or Mass communication majors.

    Kids today (me included a few years ago) go to college because they think its what a “successful” person is supposed to do.

    Finally, this is a pretty negative question you’re asking. A better part 2 would be “Is the college experience supposed to be all about getting a job? There’s the “democracy requires and educated citizenry” bit that I think you’re missing.

  • Tony

    College education is a racket, just like anything else.

    If you want employment in certain fields, you have to have the degree to be competitive with the other entry-level people.

    That doesn’t mean those certain fields pay any better than other fields; they often don’t.

    For example, it cost me $31,000 in student loans to get a teaching license. In my first year of teaching I grossed $9,000. Ditto for my second year of teaching. (I’m sorry my teaching wages have contributed so much to our country’s financial woes).

    I think I would have made more money working full-time at a minimum wage job that didn’t require a college degree.

    But if I didn’t have a college education there’s a chance I’d live in poverty forever. With a college education that chance is just smaller.

  • Steve the Cynic

    It depends on how one measures “worth the cost.” I reject the premise that the sole criterion is whether it’s a good financial investment. How much is wisdom worth on the free market? It’s an awfully narrow mind that values things based on how much money the highest bidder will pay.

  • Louise

    I think the American higher education system as we know it is modern day indentured servitude – for both students and parents.

  • Nicole

    I don’t regret going or making the choices I have made, however my BA from UMN was triple the cost of my Master’s of Arts from the University of Florida. UMN is one of the top five universities for student debt. While it provides a better education (with their emphasis on liberal arts education and cross disciplinary studies) than UF, UMN definitely is not worth that much.

  • steve

    i dont education is worth the cost when someone has 300k in debt unless your a doctor, but basically high ed is worth the cost because people have to write,think critically, and build consensus among others! i guess i am from the old school in that a hard core liberal arts program is necessary to be a productive successful person!

  • Kevin VC

    * When you realize the college does not care if you graduate, but continue to pay their bills.

    * When state leaders keep cutting the budget for aid that your tuition grows to 20% per year, and that does not include other increasing costs.

    * When your college puts requirements that does not match your degree and those requirements are near impossible to get into, complete in a series, or has competent staff.

    * When you finally have to drop out due to a all the above you realize you have to die to avoid the loan repayment. You CAN NOT go through bankruptcy to avoid. Your best bet is to forever file ‘deferment’ hoping to either someday return to the same hell, or our leadership gets some balls about helping those in need. After all the promise of a better job is not there if you drop out.

    * When the job you were aiming for disappears before you even get to graduate.

    * When graduation rates for a 4 year college degree is 8 years.

    * When your low cost parking spot is removed for a stadium.

    * When you get tired of explaining this over and over to those who do not understand because they have not walked your walk. (The morons of the world in other words, aka worshipers of Ayn Rand….)

  • Keevin VC

    College should be free to those who can maintain a grade, like it is in those pesky countries out performing the USA. And this assures people of skill get access, not drunken frat boys from wealth or ‘means’ wasting college away.

    When THIS happens it will be worth it.

  • David Mills

    I learned a lot in college, but I learned more and am learning more with everyday life. College is over-rated for most. When people graduate and don’t know what to do, they go back for their masters. Take charge of your life! Think critically! If college makes you think critically, then maybe it is worth it. But college only made me jump through hoops.

  • Rachel

    A: When your two years at a state school put you deeper in debt than the four years you spent at an out-of-state private university.

    I’m about to complete a graduate program at the U of M, and after my two years here my student loan debt has almost doubled from what it was after my undergraduate degree at BU. Now I will be attempting to find a job to pay off 70K in loans in the field of public health – where most of the jobs are grant-funded and subject to frequent cuts.

  • Brooke

    This is the simple question that high school juniors should be taught to ask and find answers to. The information is not kept secret. Questioning why NOT to go to college has become taboo and there are no shortage of college recruiters and private for-profit ‘schools’ ready to package crushing debt.

    For at least the last 25 years we’ve been told that a 4 year college education is worth nearly any cost. Over the last 15 years, tuition costs have grown without added value or other valid justification. And only now are people asking the question. It’s too late for a generation of students, but hopefully 11th grade math and economics classes will put this question front and center in their curriculum. Selling the blind faith that it’s always worth it is a disservice to students everywhere.

  • http://boostingcollegecompletion.org Bruce Vandal

    The fact of the matter is that a postsecondary education is increasingly essential for access to the middle class. According to research from Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, over 60% of jobs in 2018 will require some postsecondary education. In addition, over 60% of people in the middle class have some college, compared to only 23% in the 1970’s.

    While potential students need to be vigilant about finding the educational choice that fits their budget, there is no question about the value of higher education as an investment in their future.

  • Louise

    @ David Mills – perhaps hoop-jumping ability is the most important quality to potential employers? Graduating with a high debt load also lets the employer know that the potential employee is literally “invested” in the system – to the point that he/she has few options for stepping of out of the gerbil wheel even if he/she wanted to. Add to that the fact that in twenty years the employee will need to invest in his/her own children’s educations – well let’s just say I don’t think you’ll find many ramble-rousers in this employment pool.

  • C F

    College. What a scam! With the exception of perhaps doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc.. I’ve seen enough people who went to college, got in debt and now saddled with student loans comparable to home mortgages and doing what? Not working in a field of their major, that’s for sure.

    And then look at the salaries that a college education offers compared to the debt. An engineer with a 4-year degree makes $35-$40K per year. I’ve been in jobs paying about $30K per year with no degree, (and no student loan debt)! If I’m going to “invest”(?) upwards to $80,000 or more, I think employers should pay me more like $70K.

    On the other hand, trade/technical school is far the better option. I went to a trade school for one year, graduated with a student loan payment costing less than my electric bill and worked in the field for 13 years.

    Employers are so jaded by this college thing. They advertise jobs that simply do NOT require a Bachelor’s but expect applicants to have a degree. As if a degree in bee keeping is what it takes to get a job working in an office.

  • J

    Ah, if only I knew then what I know now… there is no way I would pay as much as I did for 3 degrees again. I would work my way through school even if it took me 10 years, I would experiment with actual JOBS (intern, volunteer, etc.) before starting in on a degree path.

  • Chelsea

    I see a lot of people vexed about how few people end up working in the field of their degree, and I have to say that’s because of the way students are choosing/ executing their degrees these days.

    For starters, in high school we’re all heavily pressured to make a decision on what exactly we’re going to study in school. We’re pressured to narrow down our options as we would an essay’s thesis, until it becomes so specialized and specific that it would only allow us to attempt to obtain one job–if that job even exists, because we’re not advised on that front, and until we’ve spent so much time thinking it over and trying to ensure we’re passionate about it that it becomes a kind of obsession and/or seems to be the only path we could possibly take now that we’re in this deep. What we should really be doing is making lists of dream jobs, assessing what skills would be required for them, and then finding degrees that would teach us those skills. Then, when we get to the awful workforce this generation is faced with, we’ll have much more to choose from, more flexibility for the employers, and more freedom to move around the workforce as we see fit until we find a good fit.

    I wish I could go on further, I have several other points I could make, but with my frustrations, I could go all day.

  • Paul- St. Paul

    What does it mean to “work in my field?” Does a communication major have to be, say, a TV reporter to “work in her field?” Whether or not they pursue or attain work in a counseling position, I have a hard time imagining a bright person going through life and not feeling he were using his psychology major. Ditto for sociology and the other liberal arts. One will get out of one’s education what one puts into it. For their career development and success what they major in will be but one piece of a much larger puzzle.

  • S H

    @ Brooke – I agree with your post 100%. It seemed like everyone in my class was expected to go to college. If they did not pursue it they were looked at as people who would be unsuccessful in life. I feel like this made kids make rushed/forced decisions to attend college which contributed to to a high freshman drop-out rate.

    Are public schools still offering post-secondary opportunities? There were post-secondary opportunities for us, and although we were expected to complete the 4 years of college, it was never really encouraged to take advantage of post-secondary. I imagine that’s because it takes funding away from the school.

    My parents went to school 30 – 40 years ago and things were a lot different then, it was difficult for them to help me make informed decisions about college. I don’t regret going to college, but I wish I could have made more informed decisions starting by offering unbiased classes/lectures/discussions in high school to help kids make the right choices.

  • Carrie

    College is great. It’s not just about getting a job in your major either. It’s a wonderful growing and learning experience. Getting a college degree shows motivation and determination. However, it becomes less “worth it” if you stay too long and rack up debt equal to a mortgage payment.

  • Chelle

    Two issues here: Is college a trade school offering just a ROI? It didn’t used to be. We used to want ‘liberal arts’ education to learn how to question, think, and become a responsible citizen

    But, assuming one expects an ROI, then pick a program and a college wisely. Watch out for scams by a for profit colleges where the goal is to make money not educate students. These schools have recruitment quotas and pressure tactics encouraging their students to get huge loans on the dream of a phantom job. Meanwhile, they are profiting from federal loan money. I am appalled that the Republicans, like my Rep. John Kline, do not want to regulate this scam.

  • Michelle Berg

    A college education in a system that disallows students who are under the age of 24 from identifying themselves as adults (and therefore being eligible for federal financial aid outside their parents tax statements) and is at twice the cost of inflation rates, is wholly unsustainable. Students graduate with six digit debt figures with no immediately marketable skills and must fight for the jobs that retirement age individuals are taking to make ends meet. Read Going Broke By Degree by distinguished Professor of Economics Richard Vedder for further insight into a national dilemma that has Washington genuinely worried about young Americans and the increasing drop out rate.

  • Wallace

    The necessity of “higher eduation” is a myth and a lie, and an incredible waste of public and private resources, and as taxes all come from taxpayers, they are all private resources.

    Unfortunately, politicians don’t have the backbone to call the educrats’ bluff and shut off the money spigot. Maybe the looming bankruptcy of state governments will bring some reality to the mix. Vocational education, on-the-job training, apprenticeship . . . all make more sense than the mess we have made of higher ed.

    I had 3 or 4 classes in which I really learned something that was useful to my career and life. I got the degree but didn’t need it for the work I did, as a journalist. The rest of college–the official part–was a waste of time and money, though providing job security to the education bureaucracy, and a brainwashing job of how important formal education is, how great government is, etc. etc. And that was years ago, when my degree only cost a small fraction of what college costs today. But a lifelong interest in learning, along with a wide range of life experiences have been far more valuable than the diploma.

    Granted, there are some fields where advanced training is necessary, including medicine, but even there, students are expected to toe the “party line.”

    Kudos to you who were smart enough to understand this before wasting the money on a pointless degree, while nevertheless serving society with your productive lives.

    It is time to end the higher ed scam.

    [C.F. You NAILED it!]

  • Owen

    I would recommend Andrew Ferguson’s recent book, Crazy U. I haven’t read it yet, but I saw an hour interview with him on CSPAN-2’s Q and A program. He made many pertinent comments after going through the application/rejection/acceptance process with his son, but two stand out.

    First, he said that the bottom line on why college costs so much is that they can. Nobody actually challenges their pricing.

    Second, colleges are a competitive enterprise, but they refuse to agree to either that they are competitive or an enterprise.

    Another good book on the subject is

    Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

  • Steve the Cynic

    There are more reasons to be educated that just what kind of job it will get you. A well-educated, well-informed populace is the best insurance against falling into tyranny. Underfunding state colleges and universities, putting higher education out of reach of the non-rich, plays into the hands of plutocrats seeking to consolidate the world’s wealth among as few as possible and pass it on to their heirs.

  • Louise

    I agree with Steve.

  • Brandy

    I’ve sat in college classrooms for the past 15 years. While the K-12 model is pushing all kids towards getting 4 year liberal arts degrees they are forgetting that our country needs skilled tradesmen and women. Some students are not meant to go to an expensive University right out of the starting blocks.

    Some colleges are now offering study skills classes to those students who aren’t really ready for college level reading. And students taking remedial reading and math classes still pay the same tuition as peers who are already prepared for the college classroom.

    Just like the argument every one should own a home got this country into debt. The same idea that every one should have a 4 year degree (which on average takes students 5 – 6 years) is going to drive our young people into deep debt as well.

  • steve

    It’s worth it. Not just for the job, but actually learning something about the world. Mixing with others not like you is very important, and that is an experience that college gives you like no other. Exposing you to subjects and experts in areas is also incredibly important.

    Employers look at college educations two ways – a base line of skills but also the ability to work for something for years in order to achieve a goal – an education.

    Lastly, the Indian and Chinese kids you are competing against are going to college, studying and working hard. Your competition is not just the person from UCLA or Ole’ Miss or something anymore, but it’s someone a half a world away who wants your job and will work and sacrifice to get it. Are we not willing to work and sacrifice right back? This is about making something of yourself.

  • C F


    Employers look at college educations two ways – a base line of skills but also the ability to work for something for years in order to achieve a goal – an education.

    Employers here in the US apply the same prejudice as they do in North Korea. In the DPRK, you must be a member of the Workers Party and only then be selected go to University to get a decent job.

    Here in the US employers favor those who will be willing to gamble a monthly payment of a Lexus or a house for ten plus years in order to get a job under the illusion of “commitment”. And yet these same employers will lay off the the employee after working only a few years. On average a job will only last three years. Then the college degree holder will have to hope for the best. Meanwhile the bill comes due from Sallie Mae equivalent to that of a Mercedes Benz.

    Life(!) is an education unto it’s own. And you don’t have to go to college and borrow a home mortgage or a yacht payment to learn it. But yet, employers continue to discriminate against those with even a strand of grey hair, favoring the college student who supposedly has a “well-rounded” education of partying, cheating or buying essays on the internet.

    From what I’ve seen, those who are college graduates work the LEAST on the job. As if they have gone through the rite of passage known as a four-year degree and thus, don’t have to work as hard as those who have not.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Plutocrats are not really interested in having an educated workforce. Educated workers are troublesome to them. What they want is people who have narrow skills that they find useful, who have been trained to obediently do a job without asking any bigger questions. Above all, they want everyone to play by their rules. In particular, they want everyone to regard monetary value as the chief measure of the worth of a thing or activity, because when we fall for that lie, they win. People with well-rounded educations that include the arts, music, literature, history, social sciences, etc., are a problem for plutocrats. People like that realize that lots of things are more valuable than mere money, and when people stop coveting the plutocrats’ money, the plutocrats lose power over them. (Indeed, when the plutocrats complain that liberals are just coveting their money, it’s a case of projection; they’re the covetous ones.) That’s why they love to belittle the liberal arts, why they fund anti-intellectual movements like the Tea Party, and why they want to keep cutting state funding of higher education. They want to keep you stupid and docile.

  • Amy

    Never. Simple as that. If you want life lived within means, now that is a different question and education is certainly not a factor. But the cost of ignorance is even more expensive.

  • A. M. S.

    Speaking from my personal experience, the five years I spent in college (I changed majors a few times) were the most important self-discovery and learning period in my entire life. I gained a quality education in the truest sense of the liberal arts while taking on increasing responsibilities for projects, programs, and student programming. My worldview expanded, and I had opportunities to travel and grow that I know I would not have had if I’d chosen some other option. I studied at one of the campuses of the University of Minnesota–a perfect fit for me.

    While I agree that a bachelor’s degree may not be for every one, the opening of one’s mind to new ideas and experiences certainly is less likely to happen if one doesn’t choose to further one’s education. I can compare the lives of my nieces and nephews who chose to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree and those who chose no higher education whatsoever. Those who pursued higher education are happier, much more well-rounded, and significantly more successful on basically all levels. I firmly believe higher education of any kind is well worth the investment.

    I also firmly believe state dollars invested in higher education should be increased and viewed as an investment in the future. A thoughful, open-minded citizenry who can think critically and ask probing questions is certainly a desirable outcome. We should do everything we can to nurture that.

  • Wallace

    To: Steve the Cyncophant

    You say: “Plutocrats are not really interested in having an educated workforce.” Au contraire. They WANT a workforce educated to do their bidding, without questioning. Where in a “well-rounded” education will one learn to question the government–no NOT the party in power at the moment–but the very nature of the cradle-to-grave socialistic system that the Republicrats and Democans work so hard to preserve, along with their power? Hmmm?

    In most universities you’ll learn that:

    Arts, music, and literature are valuable for their own sake, no matter how bizarre or obscene they are;

    History has been written by white Euro-males who have used it to beat down minorities while feeding their own greed for money and power;

    Social science teaches us that humans are only highly evolved primates, subject to instinct and behavioral programming.

    I didn’t start to question your so-called plutocrats until I threw off the yoke of all the crap I’d been fed in college, started to read and study on my own, and began questioning the education that I and my parents had paid for.

    I’ve never been to a Tea Party meeting but before you keep bad-mouthing them, maybe you ought to go to a gathering and get some of your information first-hand, or are you too elitist, too educated, too afraid you might learn something that really matters?

  • Steve the Cynic

    Wallace, I don’t know what college you attended, but your caricature does not fit my experience. The chief thing I learned, beyond the subject matter itself, was critical thinking. Be skeptical of all ideology. That includes being skeptical of the skeptics. It sounds like you just flipped from one ideology to another when you “threw off the yoke.” Jumping from one closed mindset to another is not my idea of progress. In my experience, all ideology is bullshit.

    And don’t get me started on your preposterous assertion that what we have in this country is anything like a “cradle-to-grave socialistic system.” The growing wealth disparity in this country is is solid proof that what we have is not socialism.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Oh, and btw, Wallace, you appear to be confused about what plutocracy is, in addition to your obvious confusion about what socialism is. You might want to educate yourself on such things before you go off half cocked again.

  • Wallace

    Steve the C.

    We have plutocracy by proxy. The wealthy rule through their lapdogs in Congress, the White House, and even the Courts. Think judges are immune to political pressure? They are beholden to their fellow $300 per hour (and more) plutocrat lawyers.

    You speak of “The growing wealth disparity in this country.” That’s true. Your plutocrats–the richest of the rich–pay very little in taxes, the middle class pay more and more, the poor make less and less, and the middle class pays for the poor’s education, food, healthcare, housing, and illegitimate children.

    Whadya mean “closed mindset”? I got a stilted, one-sided point of view in college. When I learned to learn on my own, and not to the syllabus, was when my mind opened.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Okay, Wallace, now I’m the one who’s confused. I mostly agree with your statement, “We have plutocracy by proxy. The wealthy rule through their lapdogs in Congress, the White House, and even the Courts.” (I’ll take it as an overstatement for emphasis.) However, that seems to be at odds with your earlier rant about us having a “socialistic sytem,” which sounded like what would come from an extreme right-wing (i.e., pro-plutocrat) ideologue. Are there two of you named Wallace, one on the far right and the other on the far left?

  • Patrick

    When graduates then sell themselves to the highest bidder, emersing themselves in the venal obsessions of more i-phone apps, sedatives, and clever banking schemes.

  • Wallace

    to Steve the C.

    I’m so far right, I’m left; or maybe so far left, I’m right. That’s because of a fallacy in trying to define “right” or “left” on the political spectrum. Most erroneously think that communism is at the far left, and fascism at the far right, with socialism not as far left as communism. The spectrum actually ranges from tyranny at one end to liberty at the other.

    There are many brands of tyranny, communism and fascism being just two. In communism the regime owns all property and controls all production. In fascism, a facade of freedom is maintained by allowing private ownership of property, but heavy government control of property, production, and people, leaves very little actual liberty.

    Another way to describe the types of government is “statist” vs “non-statist.” In statist governments, there is extreme regulation and control of citizens. In non-statist government, there is minimal regulation and control. Statist governments tend to be socialistic, are part of controlling people is providing for them. So there are many government-funded welfare programs. And of course, there is heavy taxation of the productive, to subsidize the non-productive. This is the essence of socialism.

    Socialism is not a sustainable system, as what is taxed–hard work, innovation, productivity, independence–shrinks; and what is subsized–sloth and dependency–expands, until the non-productive outnumber the productive, and society collapses on itself. This collapse has begun in Europe, and must also occur here, if we do not change, and soon.

  • Steve the Cynic

    Ah, now I see, Wallace. You’ve drunk Ayn Rand’s Kool-aid. There are at least three problems with that ideology.

    1. It assumes that monetary profit is a reliable measure of meaningful productivity. The existence of such things as predatory lending in the absence of effective regulation belies that assumption.

    2. It rewards hording and punishes altruism. It rejects the existence of the common good as a value. On the contrary, there is a legitimate role for government in pooling society’s resources to do things that are everyone’s responsibility in general but no one’s in particular, such as taking care of those who are unable (n.b.: not unwilling) to care for themselves.

    3. It’s an example of the slippery slope falacy, that if one extreme is a problem, the other extreme must be the solution. It assumes that, since too much government is clearly a problem, the solution must always be less government. If that were so, Somalia and other failed states would be paradises. A better metaphor is to think of the extremes as two ditches to avoid. Both Marxist communism and Randian captialism will inevitably fail, and for exactly the same reason: people are selfish and will tend to exploit others if they can get away with it. John Galt is fiction. The solution, if there is one, is balance.

    I have yet to see a counterexample to my assertion that all ideology is bullshit.

  • Jason

    I’m not sure. But I do know that Steve the Cynic and Wallaces’ spirited debate has been very educational, and it’s free.