Higher Education Examined. The Bachelor's Degree Debate: Is College Worth the Cost?

The Great Debate: Is College Worth the Cost?

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As the nation continues what some have called a "jobless recovery" from recession, the rising cost of college continues to concern parents and students. In recent years, voices challenging the value of a college education have grown louder.

Back in June 2009, SmartMoney writer Jack Hough asked the controversial question, "Is a college degree worthless?" He suggests that the rising cost of a bachelor's degree, declining standards of quality for those college degrees, and the fact that 40% of American students fail to earn a bachelor's degree within 6 years present a need to re-examine the way in which America approaches higher education.

Spending on an education vs. earning in the workforce

The Education Department's Advisory Committee on Financial Assistance paints a similar picture in its June 2010 report, "The Rising Price of Inequality: How Inadequate Grant Aid Limits College Access and Persistence." According to the report, in the past two decades, the net price of a public college education has increased from a share of 41 percent to 48 percent of a low-income family's annual pay, and has increased from 22 percent to 26 percent of a moderate-income family's yearly salary.

This means that many students will go deeply into debt. The report finds that the loan burden of the low-income student who receives a Pell Grant during college is currently an average of $30,800 for a 4-year public college and $36,800 for a four-year public university. This amount increases from $57,400 and $63,800, respectively, for moderate-income students, who do not qualify to receive Pell Grants.

These figures seem to support Hough's argument that saving early, by going to work and socking away earnings, beats earning more in the long run by earning a college degree. However, it leaves unanswered the question of how to gain the skills sets necessary to compete in today's competitive, high-tech marketplace.

Sure, years spent in school accruing debt are years not spent in the workforce earning money. But especially when competition for jobs is fierce, having that credential helps a job seeker simply score the interview. If hired, that employee needs to demonstrate the ability to adapt to changing technologies, communicate effectively while working on teams, solve problems and deliver complex assignments on deadline. Often, these skills are gained during undergraduate study and through undergraduate internships.

The argument for a bachelor's degree

New York Times Economix blogger David Leonhardt states it simply: "The overall storyline remains the same. College provides a far better economic return than in past decades, despite the skepticism you sometimes hear." In Bloomberg Businessweek, contributing editor Chris Farrell goes even farther, arguing that a post-secondary education is more important than ever after the recession.

The typical college graduate earns about 75% more than a non-college graduate. Median weekly income levels have increased since 1980 for people with a four-year college degree, but fluctuated for those with an associate degree or less.

And the marketplace trend is toward better-educated workers: From 1973 to 2008, the share of jobs in the U.S. economy requiring a post-secondary education has risen from 28 percent to 59 percent.

Before making a decision as big as whether or not to get a bachelor's degree, it is important to understand which employment sectors are projected to see job growth: Information technology, health care, education, government and business top the list.

Completing a college degree does say something about a potentional potential employee's characteristics: He or she possesses the discipline to complete sustained and difficult projects, a solid work ethic, problem-solving skills and emotional maturity. Earning a bachelor's degree doesn't have to mean missing out on earning a salary, either. In addition to traditional colleges and universities, online schools offer flexible schedules that can allow students to hold on to a full-time job while pursuing a degree. Many online schools also have hybrid programs, with traditional on-campus classes as well as their online offerings.

Start with a little self-assessment

A college education may not be for everyone. It certainly makes sense for people who enjoy intellectual challenges or hope to work for change on a higher level. On the other side of the spectrum, renegades who are sufficiently disciplined to learn on their own, or perhaps better suited to learning practical skills through vocational school, may prefer to opt out of earning a bachelor's degree. But many people in the middle have to sort through various factors to decide whether a bacherlor's degree is worth the investment of time nad money.

Thus, the answer to the question, "Is a bachelor's degree worth the investment of time and money?" depends on numerous factors. To start, a potential college student should try a little quiz:

  1. What's my learning style?
  2. Am I motivated to study on my own?
  3. Am I good at adapting to new forms of learning, such as online study?
  4. How much will I need to pay or borrow to get a college degree?
  5. How long will it take me to earn a bachelor's degree?
  6. What is my career goal, and what kind of education would that require?
  7. How much education would my peers--and rivals--in this field have?

There are no right or wrong answers--just asking the questions and examining the issues opens up a realm of discovery. At least, that's what they say in college.