Research Paper: College Worth It?' Weighs on Local Students

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¶ … college worth it?' weighs on local students.

The Press Democrat. Jeremy Hay, May 18, 2013.

Ever since the post-Second World War era, a college education has been the traditional path of those focused on professional success in the United States, and elsewhere in the industrial world. As a result, there is a general expectation that pursuing a college degree is, necessarily, more consistent with long-term success in professional life and life in general. Typically, high school graduates are encouraged to continue on to college, whether or not they have any specific idea of what course of study or professional field to pursue. However, the increasing cost of a college education combined with reduction in demand for labor in a less optimistic national economy may have changed the calculus of traditional expectations.

The current estimated outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. is $1 trillion, which includes an average debt upon college graduation of approximately $25,000 per graduate. In many cases, parents who earn too much for their children to qualify for substantial government or institutional financial assistance but not nearly enough to pay for four years of college end up taking on the debt so their graduating children do not start their adult lives in debt; in other cases, they may take on a mortgage on the family home to finance college tuition. In the alternative, such as when students do qualify for government-funded loans and other forms of tuition assistance, public funds end up financing the pursuit of degrees without a sufficiently high return-on-investment (ROI) to justify this public expense.

By considering the statistically predicted average life-time earnings of thousands of different types of jobs in conjunction with the cost of a college education and compared against a conservative investment of the amount of money spent on college degrees, it is possible to conduct an empirical ROI analysis. According to some who have conducted these types of analyses, there are several important general patterns that emerge that help distinguish students who would probably benefit more from going to college from students who would probably benefit more from doing something else after high school.

First, obtaining a college degree is much more important than just whether or not a person attends any college. If there is a marked distinction in lifetime earnings in relation to college, the greatest differential is between college graduates and non-college graduates; that differential is not evident between individuals who have had some college and individuals who had no college. Second, only roughly 60% and 70% of students attending American four-year and two-year colleges and universities, respectively, graduate within 6 years of their first matriculation. Third, many college students receive degrees in fields that have no real connection to any specific professional interests of the student. Employment rates and lifetime earning among recent graduates are much higher among students who pursue degrees in the context of specific career goals than among students who select their degrees largely out of the necessity to select a major to graduate. After considering those patterns in conjunction with the empirical income and earning-related evidence, only a relatively small fraction (i.e. one out of twenty) of the nation's 3,000 accredited colleges represents a good ROI.

Other analysts acknowledge the empirical comparison but suggest that economic factors are only one component part of the calculus of the decision about going to college. According to that view, the benefits of going to college are hardly limited to those in the economic realm. The argument is that whether or not a student eventually receives a degree, the college experience provides other benefits in life, such as stronger interpersonal relationships, communication skills, marital relationships, and parenting skills. College attendance broadens philosophical perspective and exposes the individual to other cultures and people and circumstances in a learning environment. Among other benefits, more college experience corresponds to lower rates of crime within communities, more political involvement, greater general well-being, and vocational satisfaction.

Part II: Critical Analysis

When thousands of American college students were surveyed about what their primary objective was for pursuing a college degree, the most common response (by far) was the belief and expectation that it would lead to more professional success and earning potential (Hay, 2013). In principle, that makes the economic analyses the most relevant measure of ROI; by contrast, had the most common survey response been that the main purpose of going to college was to become culturally competent or politically involved, then relative cultural competence would be the most relevant measure of the value of education.

That is not necessarily to deny the importance of any of the other benefits of a college education. In theory, a college education improves one's social and cultural competence and promotes communication skills. In reality, more than one-third of American college students need remedial work in college (Ripley, 2012) and many of them will not acquire the basic writing and other communication skills that they should have already developed in high school (Strauss, 2013; Tyre, 2012). Likewise, anecdotally, many people do remember their college experiences as some of the most rewarding of their lives and they maintain friendships, associations, and interests in the long-term that began in college. However, unless those are the stated reasons for pursuing a college degree at great financial expense and obligation, those benefits should not be part of the calculus of whether or not college is worth the trouble today.

In the most general statistical analysis, attending college may appear to be beneficial from the long-term earning perspective. As of 2012 and in 2011 dollars, people without a high school diploma will earn a projected average of $1 million in a 30-year career (Ripley, 2012). Meanwhile, their counterparts who graduated from high school will earn $1.4 million. Having some college without earning a degree only boosts lifetime earning to $1.6 million; those with an associate's degree will earn $1.8 million; and those with a 4-year bachelor degree will earn $2.4 million. Naturally, those who earn a master's degree will earn more, $2.8 million; those with doctoral degrees $3.5 million; and those with professional degrees, $4.2 million, on average (Ripley, 2012).

However, it is quite probable that those figures conceal certain aspects of the implications of those data. For one thing, it would be appropriate to omit those at the highest end of that spectrum from the population to whom the research question pertains, simply because people who eventually achieve post-graduate degrees are much more likely to have entered college with specific educational and eventual vocational objectives. For another thing, those data fail to distinguish between college students who achieve degrees in the specific areas of their intended career paths and those who drift through a bachelor's degree program largely by default or arbitrary choice. Furthermore, numerous academic programs leading to degrees that may indeed reflect genuine subject-matter interest on the part of the student simply do not have vocational relevance outside of teaching those subjects as a profession; Anthropology would be one such example (Ripley, 2012). Typically, today's college graduates find themselves taking on employment after graduation that does not require a college degree of any kind, such as working in coffee houses or retail sales positions (Coy, 2009). Unfortunately, the largest growing segment of unemployed young adults are those with college degrees who cannot find employment directly related to their academic training or that corresponds to their productive vocational potential (Coy, 2009). Undoubtedly, pursuing a college degree was not the best option for many of them.

Apparently, colleges may be partly to blame for the high numbers of graduates who are not able to translate their degrees into vocational direction after their graduation. That is a function of the fact that private colleges tend to maintain programs that have high promotional and advertising potential to draw in students based on popular trends and perceptions, such as images of particular professions popularized in mass media. One example would be criminal justice and forensic science programs whose popularity increased in the last two decades, largely in proportion to the increased saturation of dramatized police, crime, and forensic science-related series on television, in particular (McDonald, 2009).

Colleges generate revenue by attracting students to their programs, largely irrespective of how successful they are at securing employment related to their degrees after graduation. In many cases, students enroll in criminal justice programs without more than a general desire to do "something like" what they perceive to be an exciting career based on fictionalized images of what forensic specialists or other vocations within criminal justice do. Many of those students become disillusioned once they discover the realities of the careers they became familiar with only in a fictionalized version on television (McDonald, 2009).

One counterargument to the suggestion that college is not necessarily beneficial to everybody is the drastic reduction in the number of so-called "blue collar" skilled labor jobs that were readily and reliably available in the American manufacturing sector ever since the post-war era. Certainly, it is true that scores of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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College Worth It?' Weighs on Local Students.  (2013, June 26).  Retrieved December 10, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/college-worth-weighs-local-students/6884515

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