Costs and Benefits to College – Is It Worth It?


You would think someone like me, a grad student hoping to get his PhD in the not-to-distant future, would not even be thinking about the costs of education. I’m also super-lucky that I don’t have a gigantic student loan debt to worry about, and that is primarily because of smart decisions done by others before I could even articulate the problem (thank you Mom and Dad!). But then again you see people that have situations like this seen in the picture and have to wonder more generally.

Now, I want to concentrate on the economic value since that is the easier to quantify, but then I’ll look at other aspects of university/college-level education.

So studies over the years have asked the question over the years, and on the point of the bonus in how much you earn from a college degree is very positive. No matter your race or gender, having a BA or higher will double your lifetime income than if you had only a high school degree. If you figure you have to pay $100,000 into the system to get your education after considering loans, interest, inflation, lost time in the work force, etc., you will earn that back from getting a job with a BA or better.

However, there are trends that I think may make this picture a bit less certain. For one thing, there is the problem of saturation. Among 25-34 year-olds in the US, about 42% have completed post-secondary education. But as time goes on, there will be even more people in the market with those same skill sets from colleges. Unless the demand for people with such degrees goes up at a similar rate, the benefits of college will go down.

But what really is worrying me is what is happening at the colleges in how they are running things. One of the growing features of community colleges and even 4-year universities in the US is the use of the adjunct professor. This is happening in part because of the cost of education, and one of the ways to keep it down is by having lower-payed, short-term, no-benefit teaching positions rather than high-paying, long-term, juicy benefit-packaged tenured positions. Tenure track is getting harder to obtain as more people have the same skill set and fewer positions remain. On the other hand, adjuncts have minimal job security and will not be able to settle in well and do the best job educating. Moreover, because of the lower pay grade, the best people to educate are going to go somewhere else than the teaching world if they cannot have the sorts of jobs they need to pay the bills, including their own student debts.

So we may expect to have lower quality education. And if that happens, that situation is going to be noted up in the business world. If education gets worse in quality, a student degree will become worth less. If a job offer can be fulfilled nearly equally well by someone with either a high school or BA degree, then the benefits of the BA will drop to nothing. I doubt it will get that bad, but it does mean that the benefits of the BA are going to get less and less, making college worth less and less.

But there is still the issue that college is not only expensive in the US, it is getting more expensive and faster than the inflation rate. Some colleges are trying to fight that, and recently President Gee at Ohio State put a tuition freeze for in-state students, but there is still the issue that colleges need a lot of money and states have been pulling away funding, in part because of the weak economy. With costs going up and student debt climbing, it makes the costs greater.

If the costs of college go up, and the benefits go down, then eventually college will not be worth it for the average person.

But this is assuming a person actually completes college. Having some college experience helps, but not that much, especially compared to having a proper degree. With the growth of for-profit colleges, the problem is getting worse. As was noted in an issue of Frontline, for-profit universities push a lot for students with a not-so-great chance of finishing college to sign up and take on huge debts. This makes a large body of people be crippled with debt for life, never being really able to pay down the interest, let alone the principal, and not having the benefits of college, neither as a mind-expanding experience nor as a salary enhancer.

Oh, and there is the issue of actually getting a job when you are done. Again, this will become worse with two potential forces: out-sourcing jobs and the lower quality of US education. It’s really the combination of these factors. If an employer can get the same intellectual work done overseas by someone with an equal or better college education at an equal or lower (probably much lower) cost, you know what is going to happen. With the Internet, it is becoming easier to have engineering or other tasks being done by someone in China, India, or even in Europe. If these places have the better education of their college students, and if they are at least competitive on the salary of those workers, the benefits of college in the US will also shrink.

So there are several forces that are in play right now that could bring the benefits of college down while the costs go up. I unfortunately do not have the know-how to see how strong the effects are, what would best model how those effects will change in time, let alone having an analysis to say when the costs outweigh the benefits, but  you can see that the problem is the costs and benefits are approaching. That cannot bode well in the long term. Already we can see the gap between income among college-educated and only high school-educated not grow and even shrink a bit over recent years.

But there are social dynamics to consider as well. Right now even if we wanted to, we cannot get everyone that wants or needs a higher education into college. There are not enough campuses to do it. But more importantly, the rising costs is making it out of reach even for those qualified in their applications to college. So if you are poor, you will probably remain poor. The rising costs of college will probably hurt social mobility, and the US is already way behind the rest of the developed world in that measure; we don’t need to make it worse.

But what about the personal benefits of having a proper education? Consider the case made by John Green:

The point of how you view the world with a broadening of the mind via education is a strong one. However, college is not necessary for that. But worse, as noted, the education system is getting worse. That means that the less measurable personal benefit of education is shrinking. Moreover, students need not take the mind-expanding classes, or they can at least minimize their credits they spend there. It’s more extreme in for-profit schools, which have no philosophy classes for example. Besides, shouldn’t this be something happening at the K-12 level? Why should only the select or the rich be able to have access to the mind-expanding experiences? This will again lead to social anxiety and perhaps exasperate the stream of anti-intellectualism that exists in the US, making some people seem elite–and all the worse if in fact their education did nothing to make them more thoughtful in the process.

In some ways, a university may even do a particularly bad job of teaching their mind-expanding subjects. In a lot of Intro to Philosophy classes, you start with Plato and end with the works of Descartes. That is absolutely nuts. It would be like teaching physics students by starting with the theory of impetus and end with the concepts of force. You end up covering a lot of time on things that are likely wrong or simply not popular in the field (yes, philosophers don’t keep all ancient ideas as possibilities). You also miss out on what is happening in the field that is interesting and not probably wrong. Having the mind-body problem not go beyond Descartes’ musing is maddening considering that so much research has since been done, including the opening of the fields in cognitive and neuroscience. Also, intro classes have a tendency to be very large, and if the class is only lecture-based, then you end up with a bunch of bored students learning about old, dead white guys and their strange ideas that are just as alien as the idea of phlogiston is to a chemistry student. That seems the best way to kill interest in philosophy and make it look like an anachronism. Fortunately not all intro to philosophy classes are like that, but they also aren’t as great on discussing the cutting-edge areas of debate. On the other hand, a lot of modern philosophy is really technical and may also be off-putting. But there is certainly a balance to be had between the out-dated and the accessible.

Key point: universities are not necessarily the best way to expand one’s mind, and in some ways it may close it. Moreover, what should be mind-expanding should already be done in the K-12 system to reach the maximum number of future citizens.

Now, I’m not advocating people not go to college, that it isn’t worth it (then again, the fewer of you trying, the easier it is for me). What I am really thinking of is how to potentially remedy the situation. A few things come to mind:

  1. Public universities should be low/no tuition institutions, as they are in much of Western Europe. This takes the costs down, stops another potential debt-bomb from going off in the economy, makes the only barriers to college desire and ability, and gets the best people into the best positions.
  2. Move more of the mind-expanding courses and educational methods into the K-12 system; make people want to learn before they even need college.
  3. Have more permanent professor positions rather than adjuncts. Think of it this way: every time someone starts to work at a McDonald’s  they are slow and make mistakes for a while; if you changed who worked a position with someone new every week, your productivity and quality would drop. Same with adjuncts; the more they are replaced in their position, the less productive and lower quality will be the education. Also, you will not attract the best people to teach if you give them no job security and low pay.
  4. Improve teaching pedagogy all-around. One of the things that was discovered in physics education research (PER), for example, was that even teachers who did their job for decades were not that great in improving student understanding; only after testing their students and then changing their ways with the methods of PER did they have better gains in student understanding. Unless education also improves, the benefits of college are not going to grow and continue to make sure it is worth-while.

Now, to implement this isn’t so easy. It’s almost certainly going to mean a lot of government money, as it does in Western Europe. As for improving educator’s work itself, that may mean having certain requirements for professors. Few probably have had formal training in teaching pedagogy, let alone earn a degree in education. It may be worth-while considering how to make some sort of requirement to have college professors do something to continue to improve their methods. We already do that to K-12 teachers all the time; why not those paying to be educated?

I don’t really have the answers, and I may not even have the best way to measure the problem. However, it should be researched. The more we wait on it, the harder it will be for the US to stay competitive. I hope some helpful criticism can come my way. I’m still trying to formulate my ideas on this topic.

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