College once was a one-way ticket to a better financial life for the relatively few Americans who were fortunate enough to attend. But matriculation seems all but mandatory now if you want to keep pace in our increasingly competitive and well-educated workforce. The share of Americans aged 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree has increased sevenfold from 4.6% in 1940 to 32.5% in 2015, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. And college graduates earn nearly twice as much ($1,270 per week) as high-school grads with no college experience ($698 per week), according to fourth-quarter 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Enrollment rates and expected earnings aren’t the only campus concerns trending higher, however. Tuition at nonprofit four-year colleges, both public and private, has gone up by more than 200% since 1976, according to College Board data. And the amount owed by the average graduate with student debt has increased by nearly 300% from $9,450 in 1993 to $37,172 in 2015.
So does a college education really still represent a safe investment in a young person’s future, or has it somehow morphed into a risky bet you’re better off not making? In search of insights from knowledgeable voices on all sides of this crucial issue, we posed the question of college’s current value to a panel of leading experts in the higher education and finance industries. You can find their bios and responses below.
College Is Worth It
- Students today are building their intellectual capacity to invent industries that don’t yet exist and to solve problems and pursue opportunities that have not yet been created. … College is not for everyone, but education is meant for all. And for most, especially first-generation students and those from underrepresented communities, investing in higher education is the surest pathway to prosperity. No matter your age or status, a college degree is attainable and valuable.
Cynthia Teniente-Matson // President, Texas A&M University-San Antonio
- Did you know that the life expectancy of those with at least a little college is twenty-five years longer than for those who have none? College graduates are also four times less likely to smoke, and much more likely to exercise consistently, maintain a healthy weight, and see a doctor regularly. Put these facts together with the higher income over a longer lifetime and college graduates benefit all of us — they pay higher taxes and use less of our government resources for unemployment and health care.
Tori Haring-Smith // President, Washington & Jefferson College
- Maybe you’ll never need to solve a differential equation or quote Shakespeare, but higher education will still serve you well. College teaches valuable critical thinking, communications and problem-solving skills. A recent survey found that employers consider these skills even more important than a potential hire’s subject of study.
Karen Misjak // Executive Director of Iowa College Aid
Ask the Experts
College Is Not Always Worth It
- I attended college in a simpler time when savings, summer employment, a part-time job in school could largely pay for a college education without requiring large loans. Those financial circumstances provided some leeway on having to make early career decisions. Unfortunately, that is rarely true anymore and students need to carefully consider their likely career and potential earnings before making a college decision.
Bruce Wagner // Chief Executive Officer, Finance Authority of Maine
- College indeed is a wise choice for some people but not for as many as who attend. So think hard about who you are and where you're most likely to thrive and then, not as a lemming but with a free mind, decide what's right for you--even if you have to tell your college-bound friends you're deferring attending college. After their initial shock, you may be able to convince them that you're the smart one.
Marty Nemko // Author of “The Best of Marty Nemko”
Ask the Experts
College Is Not Worth It
None of the experts we consulted believe college is always a bad idea for everybody. But if you think it is, tell us why in the comments section.
Image: sharonscribbles / iStock.