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Which College Is a Good Choice?

In a way, the decision whether to go to college is the easy part. High school seniors then have to decide which college best offers what they are seeking. In the past, this required their looking mainly at majors, tuition and location. Today, however, they are increasingly asking about what graduates at particular colleges earn afterward ("Push to Gauge Bang for Buck from College Gains Steam," The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12).

I can't blame them. The cost of a four-year bachelor's degree has skyrocketed over the past decade, forcing more students to take on heavy student-loan debt. For students from affluent families, the price paid for a sheepskin is not an issue. They have the luxury of choosing a major strictly on the basis of what intellectually appeals to them. But for the overwhelming majority of students, other factors come into play. That's why both federal and state officials want to make more accessible the average salaries by college and major. To date, only Virginia has done so on its own. Ten more states are expected to publish salaries of recent graduates by school and major.

The usual argument against this intense focus on salaries is that colleges exist to provide an education. They are not trade schools. In other words, there is a difference between education and training. The former is concerned with concepts, while the latter is concerned with techniques. Although the two frequently overlap, they are not the same. Pragmatists maintain that the distinction is an anachronism today. They point to the cost of getting a degree. I don't like seeing colleges turned into trade schools, which is essentially what will happen. On the other hand, it is inevitable because of the cost.

In light of the evidence to date, I think the only hope for higher education will come from on-line instruction. Although there will always be some students with the means or dedication to major in fields without any consideration of the pecuniary payoffs, the vast majority of students will opt for majors that have the greatest potential for immediate well-paying jobs. Realizing the shift, more and more institutions will offer MOOCs because they are more profitable and appealing to the younger generation.

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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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