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Is a College Degree Still a Good Investment?

It's only natural for parents to want their children to have a better life than they have. That's one of the reasons they've been willing for so long to subsidize the cost of a college education. But as wages for workers with a four-year degree on average fell by 8.6 percent (adjusted for inflation) from 2000 to 2010, and student loan debt rose to nearly $1 trillion today, parents are understandably having second thoughts.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that college grads are just as pessimistic as others about the economy and their prospects for finding jobs ("Gloom Widespread as College Grads Face New Math," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27). Little wonder why. The unemployment rate for recent college grads is 10.7 percent. In addition, more than 14 percent of them between the ages of 25 and 34 are living with their parents.

There was a time not so long ago when these facts were unthinkable. Even as tuition skyrocketed, few questioned their decision to pay whatever it cost to earn a sheepskin. Going to college was considered a ticket to a bright future. But as Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, said: "The wages of those with a college degree have been roughly flat for 10 years, and it's not really improving relative to those with less education" ("I Owe U," Time, Oct. 31).

I've written before why I think what is taking place at too many colleges is a scandal. Recently, a series of books confirm my view. In Higher Education (Times Books, 2010), Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus argue that undergraduates are shortchanged by the instruction they receive for the price they pay. In Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa write that four years of undergraduate study make little difference in the ability of students to synthesize knowledge and express themselves in writing. In The Five-Year Party (BenBella Books, 2010), Craig Brandon charges that hundreds of colleges are little more than party centers.

What advice would I give parents and high school students? In a nutshell: Do you really need a four-year degree and can you afford it? At least, that's the way Louis Menard sees the matter ("Live and Learn," The New Yorker, Jun. 6). It's the former question that is far more vexing. How many teenagers know what kind of work they want? Even if they say they know, how realistic are their choices? Moreover, the only secure jobs in the future will be those that cannot be offshored electronically. Possessing a college degree will offer little, if any, protection against this practice, according to Alan Blinder, former vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.

In light of these realities, I would recommend community college. Although these schools have been inundated with record numbers of students who have not always been able to take the courses they want, they are still a bargain. (According to the American Association of Community Colleges, about 8 million students were enrolled in for-credit courses in the fall of 2010 - an increase of more than 20 percent over the fall 2007 levels.) It's true that fewer than 12 percent of students who entered a two-year school in 2004 earned a bachelor's degree by 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But at least those students were not burdened with the kind of debt that students who entered a four-year school were saddled with after they dropped out. It's something to think about.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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