Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Values of Higher Education

The rest of the nation currently is discussing what many of us have been pondering for some time: is a college degree worth the money? I'm catching up on old NPR shows, and I'm enjoying, even as I write, this conversation at Diane Rehm's show. One caller just said that he had graduated with $120,000 in loans. Yikes. And that's an undergraduate degree.

Once upon a time, we could be fairly sure that an undergraduate education would pay for itself. You might graduate with some debt, but you'd pay it off in small chunks, and eventually, that debt would be gone, and you'd have a better job than you would have had without the college degree.

Once upon a time, you could go to a community college for 6 months or a year or two and emerge with a certificate that would pay for itself immediately. You could learn to be an electrician or a plumber or a dental assistant, and you'd be set. You might not have any debt at all. Until recently, you could go to a community college for free, if you were a resident and weren't middle class or rich.

Once upon a time, you could go to grad school, get paid a pittance, but not have to pay much tuition. You could get a Ph.D. for $150 a semester or a year (yes, you could--I know, because I did). You'd be sick of pasta by the time you were done, and you'd be a vegetarian whether you wanted to be or not, but you wouldn't have a huge amount of debt with no job prospects. You might have no job prospects, but at least you wouldn't be saddled with debt.

I worry about the amount of debt that students take on now--and I'm not the only one. Those of us in for-profit higher education are nervously watching the progress of the Gainful Employment Act now making its way through Congress. And those of you in non-profit education should be too. The question is the same: how much debt is a college degree worth?

It's a multi-faceted question. I do worry that the next bubble to pop will be the higher education bubble. But I also worry about the kind of nation we'll have if higher education once again becomes out of reach for most people. We can't go back to being agrarians. At this point, there aren't many manufacturing jobs for people who don't go to college.

Perhaps we will look back at this point in the national conversation and realize that we were at a turning point. Hopefully, we will look back and say, "Wow, we were about to enter a period of incredible innovation, but you wouldn't know it from the conversations we were having in the summer of 2010. What a better time we're in now, thanks to those innovations!"


Sandy Longhorn said...

This is a huge conversation. Thanks for bringing it up. I especially like your note about being sick of pasta and becoming a vegetarian even if you love meat. I think this points out a real problem with MONEY in our society. Receiving Financial Aid is great, but without a lesson on fiscal literacy, I'm not sure my students really get it. They use the financial aid surplus check (they apply for more money than they "need" to cover tuition, books, rent, etc.) to buy "want" items rather than "need" items. I worry about what's going to happen when their loans come due. I talk about this in my English classes all the time, even if it isn't my subject area.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott said...

Many of our students are required to take Macroeconomics, but I suspect a mandatory Financial Literacy class would serve the students far better. Good for you, for bringing it up!

Sandy Longhorn said...

Wish I could take credit. Financial literacy was all the talk during professional development week this year. :)