Spotlight- Student Financial Aid Crisis- Is College Worth it?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

I grew up in the 60's and 70's in California and all the people around me with college degrees were successful people. They were people who were not living paycheck to paycheck and lived in the 'better' neighborhoods. Most of the people I grew up around had not gone to college, but they all wanted their kids to go. College gleamed on our horizons like the golden egg the goose laid, and anyone who was anyone had big hopes of collecting on that gold.

Coming of age in the 70's and 80's the world was still one in which you stood a chance of going to work for the Big Company in your area and working there 'till retirement, nest egg all nicely padded. College was a means to that end.

So we all did that, and had our kids and then told our kids they would go to school for twelve years and then they got to 'go to college', like that was the prize. Our sons did just that.

Going to college today is a different world. The high cost of tuition means the vast majority of students are scrambling to pay for college any way they can, and for most that means student loans. Is college worth the investment? It depends on why you're going.

There are a few things that we can say about a college education that is as true today as it ever was:

  • A degree will mean more money over your lifetime for almost all graduates.
  • The life and social benefit of post-secondary education creates more thoughtful, active and invested citizens. 
But the ROI (return on investment) for college is something that isn't a guarantee any longer. Two-thirds of students leave a four year college with an average of $23,000+ in student loan debt. Our country is churning out 100 million in new student debt every year, and the impact of that on our future economy is going to be staggering.

The top two schools in the country for ROI for graduates are MIT and CIT. Want to know why? Their graduates are coming out with degrees in the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), which is where most all the jobs of the future are going to be. 

At the University of Wyoming, where my kids went, the top majors are Business and Education. My sons? Psychology, History/English and Theater/Screenwriting. 

What we told our kids to do was to do what they felt passionate about- what interested them. Oh we did encourage them to keep an eye on after-college jobs, but the primary goal was just doing what you loved. Don't we all want to do what we love?

Maybe that wasn't the best advice. While our kids are well educated, interesting, passionate about things they love and engaged in the world around them- they are also struggling with financial aid debt in a watered down job market. 

If your purpose in going to college is to earn, over your lifetime, more than your High School graduate counterparts and to do something you love- then perhaps going into debt for that is worth it- in the end. If your goal is what we had in mind back in the 70's and 80's- which was to make better than good money with good benefits for a lifetime- preferably at the same company- then maybe college isn't as good an investment unless you're willing to focus on STEM degrees.

And therein lies the problem. There is not one counselor that I am aware of at our local Colleges and Universities that are telling our kids this. They are not telling them that having a degree in History is great and they'll find politics and world social events fascinating and engaging but they're probably not going to make enough to actually support a family and pay back their loans. They're not telling them if they're going to go into debt for $50,000 over four years they'd better be majoring in a STEM area where the jobs are. And why are they not doing this? 100 million dollars a year in student loan money, that's why.

The world has changed. If we are going to do right by our young people we need to be re-thinking what we tell our kids. What would I tell my kids now if I could do it all over? Stay home for 2 years, go to a community college where they can afford to go with no debt at all? I'm not sure. The experiences they had at the University probably were worth more than the limited ones they would have received at home. But then again, I'm not having to repay all that money.


  1. And you're still at a better position than we.. Here a trainee within window industry (change and clean windows) can make more than an elementary teacher that worked 5 years..

  2. It's tough. On the one hand, it has been nice to go through a journey of self-improvement and self-discovery, spending years learning and studying while I enjoy "life on training wheels". To complain about the opportunity to do so would be engaging in 1st World Problems whining. But it all comes at a cost. Ultimately, I and most of my generation went to school because we were told if we went to college we'd be all but assured a job if we just put in the applications. That is no longer a promise, and especially in Wyoming it is quite possible to get a high paying job with a high school degree only. The line "you'll get a job with a college degree" needs a * (*: if your degree is in technology, engineering, mathematics, or science), and we have a duty to make sure all incoming students know that. Even if you do get a job, will you get a job that appreciably makes enough to return on a $50,000+ investment? Probably not. Ultimately, I would say that college is not worth it. It's a shame that we're getting to the point where only the very wealthy will go, but perhaps after a generation of no one seeking a degree due to cost, we'll figure out a better system to higher education.


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