As I began college, I attended a large assembly of new students. I remember the speaker at the time saying, “Look to your right, and look to your left. Each of those persons will not be here in four years.” In other words, two of the three people who were starting would not finish. I assume at the time it was supposed to be a motivating factor, and, for me, it was. But, those words also point to a problem about what college is, whether it has been oversold, and what other good options exist outside the college experience. It’s time to ask the question: Is college worth it?
Let’s look at both sides of the question. As studies document, in the long term, college education creates the conditions for higher levels of attainment (measured by earnings). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, holders of four-year bachelor degrees earn over $1 million more in their lifetimes than do high school graduates. Moreover, college, when fully engaged, provides a great gift: the opportunity to gain knowledge about higher things and probe deeper meanings — including the wisdom of the ages, the nobility of the arts and the reservoir of scientific understanding — in order to better oneself and the world. All of this is good. Clearly, college has the potential to enhance the human experience and effectively position a person for advancement.
Now, let’s look at another answer to the question. College is not the be-all and end-all of human existence, as some would have you believe. In fact, it is now a place where many students become frustrated, waste time, waste money and confront an ideological environment that can be hostile. A place of enormous promise, but, increasingly, a place where its exorbitant and soaring cost might not justify the potential earning benefits of particular degrees. A place where isolation and loneliness can be real. Where pressures mount amid human unraveling.
On the price equation, underwriting the cost of education through student loans has placed enormous debts on recent graduates, some of whom have limited means to pay those debts back. At $1.3 trillion, student loan debt is now the second-highest category of consumer debt, surpassing auto loan and credit card debt. The average student from the Class of 2016 owes around $37,000 in loans. Over 2 million borrowers have student loan debt above $100,000. The student loan default rate sits at 11.2 percent. This is why I often caution young students to not exceed a standard car loan in terms of indebtedness.
Today, positive changes in vocational education, along with innovative partnerships with paid apprentice programs, are creating extraordinary options for young people. With a trade focus beginning in high school (combined with community college), in-demand trades like welding, machine operation and electromechanical tech can earn a person $30,000 to $50,000 right out of school. A dedicated person can quickly evolve to be a master craftsman, making $60,000 to $80,000 a year. The top craftsmen make over $100,000 a year. All right here in Nebraska.
In its ideal form, education, not just college, should be about wonder. That means, at its core, advanced education should engender an authentic commitment to the whole person, and a daily renewal and alignment of the will, the mind, and the imagination to that which humbly serves all of humanity.
So, to answer the question — “Is college worth it?” — it depends. For some, the revived and noble idea of becoming an American craftsman, or working in other service fields, is a great pathway that comes with the reward of knowing how to make things. For others, a four-year college is an appropriate investment in intellectual and self formation. Over time, I obtained three degrees. As my family often teased me, “Jeffrey would study for a blood test.”