Increasingly people are raising questions about the value of a college education. But the answer to that question is determined by what you mean and who you ask.
Going to college wasn’t always about getting a job. A liberal arts education as it was more commonly defined was about social mobility, intellectual development, an expanded understanding of the world and a student’s place in it. It was prerequisite to a better quality of life and less about preparing for a vocation at least at the undergraduate level. Most of that remains true, since college graduates continue to be healthier, happier, live longer, on average earn more and are less likely to be unemployed than non-college graduates according to most studies.
For me, college was a broadening experience that provided the foundation (as the first person in my family to go to college) for opportunities that my parents and my siblings didn’t have. The experience and knowledge I acquired helped me to form a world view that has proven to be much more productive, rewarding and satisfying than it would have been without an education. But my college experience at a state college, cost less per semester than current students at that same school spend for texts.
I became a teacher with my degree and my $8900/year starting salary and the money I have earned over my career in education have made my investment in a college education (including three advanced degrees) well worth it.
But today college costs are outpacing their value in terms of both the capacity of students to pay for college and for salaries in some careers to keep pace with the investment. The question “Is college worth it?” today is more about those costs than the value added to an individual’s quality of life. Why are college costs outpacing inflation? Why has tuition been unaffected by the recession? What evidence, other than drop-out rates (which for colleges are horrendous) and job placement rates (which are under scrutiny), do we have to determine if a college experience still has added value?
I spent the better part of my career as a public school superintendent where answers to questions like these, basic to determining value, were expected. I was held accountable for producing results and for providing a rationale for increases in program costs. I was expected to have empathy for the community I served and to work within its capacity to support the cost. And it was expected that as a school we were putting forth a best effort to ensure each student’s success (most often measured in their acceptance to college).
The public’s demand for accountability provided the opportunity for alternatives to traditional public education in the form of on-line learning, charters, vouchers and growth in the home school movement. Many of these innovations enhanced public education while others may still prove inimical to it.
It would appear that this level of accountability is emerging with regard to higher education. Its absence has allowed colleges and universities to burgeon into bloated bureaucracies more interested in their own self-preservation and profit than in their students or the society at large. Two year community colleges become 4 year programs, colleges become universities, universities add professional schools and expand internationally without any consideration as to the need, the impact or demonstrable benefit in too many instances. Unchecked this trend will encourage alternatives to the traditional college experience which are beginning to emerge. Their value is yet to be determined.
Is college still worth it? Education will always have an immense value to the individuals who experience it. But questions about costs and accountability are legitimate. The colleges and universities of this country need to begin to address these issues and re-examine the core value of a college education in terms of of access, quality and purpose.