Inflection Point: Is College Still “Worth” It ?

Photo of diploma coversI get a bit perplexed by so much recent attention to the question of whether higher education is still “worth it” in an economic investment sense.

Yes, tuitions have grown faster than inflation and student debt is now higher than ever, as more states’ cut back on their budgetary support to higher ed institutions.

And, as a result, the individual economic investment return to higher ed completion might have moved from a “no brainer” to “a little brainer” in recent years.

This well-written New Yorker magazine article by John Cassidy does a nice job presenting the fact that the returns are not as large or consistent as they used to be. This is partly due to a changing economy and job types, as well as more people actually going to and graduating from college over the past few decades (both supply and demand, as it were), which is perhaps not as well known or appreciated as it should be.

Still, Cassidy suggests that the strictly economic, rate-of-return case for higher ed is still a good deal for about three-quarters of students who pursue that path (as compared to investing the money in the stock market or similar).  More resources are being developed to show the institutions and majors where that economic deal is best.

To bring this back to my original statement, I do get why there is some challenge to the notion of going to college – it is no longer a 100% guaranteed positive economic return on investment.  If you pay a lot for a degree, and/or set of skills, that is not very useful in the current (and future) job market, it might not be a positive return.  If you drop out, it is likely not to be a positive return. Those are real concerns.

But, it remains the case that for a large percentage of higher ed students, it still is a positive economic return.  And, moving beyond the narrow economic returns notion, a good higher education, properly approached, provides many other useful skills and perspectives, as well as providing access to the exploration of the world of ideas, which is indeed priceless.



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