During the presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, college freshman Albert Wu momentarily stole the attention from the participating candidates. Standing behind the CNN on-air anchors with a poster reading “Student Debt Sucks,” Wu included his Venmo account on the sign, inviting viewers to support his tuition via the money-transfer app. The stunt worked, raising more than $400 toward Wu’s tuition. But its ultimate impact was no doubt broader, casting a spotlight on the rising costs of college and students’ concern toward paying for it.
According to the Value of College, a study released by Barnes & Noble College and Money, nearly two-thirds of students said they eliminated certain schools from consideration due to cost, while only half of parents said cost was a determining factor. “Today’s students are very cost conscious when it comes to selecting a college,” said Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Barnes & Noble College.
From dorm rooms to debate halls, the question takes center stage: Is college tuition worth it? Do rising higher-education costs — and the challenge of paying for it — constitute a conversation or a crisis?
In the United States, the total outstanding student loan debt is $1.2 trillion, the second-highest level of consumer debt behind mortgages. Nearly 70 percent of college graduates leave school with some financial liability. Still, a recent Gallup-Purdue poll of 30,000 national alumni found despite mounting debt, 77 percent agreed that their educations were worth the cost. Even in the face of rising tuition costs and falling wages for college graduates over the past several years, a college degree is still a sound investment, according to a new Federal Reserve Bank of New York study.
A college degree is still mandatory for many jobs.
By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, with 35 percent requiring at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the America’s Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Nots report from Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Out of the 11.6 million jobs created in the post-recession economy, 11.5 million went to workers with at least some college education. Some 8.4 million went to workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher. The report also reveals that employment of workers with a high school diploma or less only grew by 80,000 jobs during the economic recovery. “The modern economy continues to leave Americans without a college education behind,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and lead author of the report. In 2016, for the first time, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher comprise a larger proportion of the workforce (36 percent) than those with a high school diploma or less (34 percent).
The bottom line is that for many industries — such as education, accounting, engineering, and finance — a college degree is non-negotiable. And, for those who plan to enter fields where a graduate or professional degree is required, it is an absolute prerequisite.
College graduates earn higher incomes throughout their lifetimes.
“Higher education has never mattered so much, to so many, as a means of social mobility, an engine of our economy, and a defender of our democracy,” stated Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell. Statistics have long found that college graduates out earn those without a college degree — and that they continue to earn higher salaries throughout their lives.
And that’s across many fields. Median earnings of college graduates are higher than median earnings of high school graduates for 80 majors analyzed by the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution. This is true for entry level, mid-career and end-of-career. College graduates can expect to earn $1 million more than high school graduates over their lifetimes, according to New York Federal Reserve researchers, and the income gap between the highest-paid college majors and the lowest paid is more than $3 million.
Alumni contacts can provide important connections throughout one’s entire career.
Higher education can also provide access to thousands of network connections for job-seeking college seniors and graduates. There are very real advantages to keeping connected to one’s alma mater that go far beyond football games, class reunions and discount travel, ranging from career development to job opportunities and much more. Landing a job is often determined, in part, by “who you know,” and being a part of an alumni network can make all the difference in one’s job search.
Developing contacts with fellow alumni and leveraging those relationships can help build connections to mentors, offer insider information on open positions and provide access to companies, as as well create other opportunities that networking can help identify. “Alumni often turn to their alumni association for career and networking opportunities, including affinity and special interest groups,” explained Meg G. Umlas, director of campaign & development events at Boston University and BU’s former executive director of alumni relations. “But there are also social — live and virtual — admissions/recruitment, travel, athletic, community service, advocacy, mentorship and leadership opportunities in addition to the ever-important philanthropic possibilities.”
College provides a unique opportunity for personal growth and development.
For current students, chasing financial success is less important than preparing for a fulfilling career, gaining exposure to new ideas and developing critical thinking skills, according to the Barnes & Noble College and Money study. “Today’s students are more interested in fulfillment and connections than generations of the past,” explained Malat.
Four years of academic exploration expose students to a wide range of subjects and a variety of academic thought. As a result, they are better able to home in on a career that’s stimulating, fulfilling and suits their personal abilities. Access to internships, research positions and study-abroad experiences help them further explore fields of interest. According to Pew Research, college-educated Millennials are more likely to see themselves on a career path, rather than just working at a job to get by. “I was exposed to so much at college — from serving as a teaching assistant and doing research to studying in London,” said Arielle Reiner, a graduating senior at the University of Pittsburgh. “It really changed me as a person.”
For many students, college is an initial step toward independence, the first time they are living away from home and making important decisions on their own. Skills such as making new friends, time management and problem solving help young adults mature and grow toward self-sufficiency. Susie Betron marvels at the change in her daughter, a freshman at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. “Over the past few months, Coree has blossomed into a mature, self-sufficient young woman who is not only focused on her future career as a registered nurse, but also able to navigate coursework, hold down two jobs and enjoy her time making lasting memories with friends,” she said. “College has been transformational in helping her become an extremely well-rounded individual.”
The changing landscape of the American workforce has significant implications for higher education. Is a college degree a sound investment? The answer appears to be yes, in terms of employment, salary and personal growth. But the bigger question may be: How can we make college more accessible to educate the next generation with the skills and knowledge they will need to compete in the workforce?