The barbecue was quite tasty, but that wasn’t the most memorable part of lunch. On a Sunday afternoon this summer, I sat down to share a meal with my family in a restaurant back home in Chattanooga. As often happens when I’m with my brother in public, he struck up a conversation with someone he’d never met – in this case our waiter, a pretty typical looking guy in his mid-20s who was outgoing, mannerly, and competent.
We found out that he had recently graduated from Auburn with an engineering degree and had been unable to find a good job – so he was forced to take a job waiting tables to make ends meet, with the hope that the labor market would eventually turn around and he’d be able to find something better. He wasn’t complaining in the slightest, but you could tell that he was frustrated. And justifiably so.
Our generation has been told consistently that college is the highway to success, the key to a good job, and the path to a better life. We’ve seen tons of charts that would lead us to believe that we will almost certainly make more money with a college education – that it is the “sure thing” among investments in life. But surely my server felt that he had been served a big lie.
Of course his story is just an anecdote, and an individual case should not be used to paint the picture of outcomes experienced by all college graduates in our society; maybe his grades weren’t the best. But he does serve as a perfect example to illustrate an idea that has recently gained greater attention and footing within our society – that a college education is not as sound of an investment as we have been led to believe, and, that, in fact, some students on the margin might be worse off as a result of stepping foot on campus.
As current college students, we know friends who have struggled to find good jobs after graduation, and we hear murmuring about people moving back in with their parents.
But many academics are claiming that the problems higher education faces are much greater and systematic in nature. They are predicting that higher education will be the next big bubble to follow real estate and technology – that traditional four-year colleges across our country could be in for some abrupt and unpleasant changes if and when people realize that a college education is not worth the price tag.
To understand what this means and why a growing number of people hold this view, it’s important to look at 3 major sources of evidence that academics generally cite to support their claims: The steep rise in college tuition costs, the increasing burden of college loan debt, and labor market outcomes for college graduates.
First, the costs of attending college have risen at an undeniably unprecedented rate over the past 30 years. Publicly available data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that, since the mid-1980s, tuition rates have risen at an average rate of 3 to 4 percent per year, adjusting for inflation.
During the past decade alone, the price of attending four-year public institutions has increased by 42 percent and the price of attending private institutions has increased by 31 percent. For our parents, it was a perfectly feasible option to work during college in order to pay for tuition; in today’s world, that’s a laughable notion for us.
Second, as a result of rising costs, college loan debt has risen dramatically.
Promotional literature for colleges and student loans typically markets debt as an excellent “investment in yourself,” but investments are, by definition, supposed to generate income in order to pay off the debt. Increasingly, we are finding that this isn’t true; more people are being saddled by huge loan balances and debilitating monthly payments.
Roughly two-thirds of college graduates take out loans in order to finance their education, graduating with an average debt of $24,000. Student loan debt carried by households has more than quintupled since 1999, and, last year, student loan debt surpassed credit card debt in the U.S.
Third, the job market prospects for many graduates are disappointing. Many academics claim that there are simply fewer jobs available in the fields related to the disciplines from which students are graduating, and, as a result, many are forced to settle – like my barbecue server – for lower-skilled jobs.
According to Ohio economist Richard Vedder, “Between 1992 and 2008, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded rose almost 50 percent, from around 1.1 million to more than 1.6 million. And 60 percent of those additional students ended up in jobs that have not historically required a degree—waitress, electrician, secretary, mail carrier.”
Certainly, there are plenty of folks on the other side of the issue who vehemently disagree with claims that college is no longer a good investment and that higher education faces impending doom.
As with all good debates, there are almost certainly no clear conclusions to be drawn, and calculating the value of a college education is a complex and subjective task – largely because so many of the benefits we derive from the college experience are immeasurable. Ultimately, we should realize what is obvious: No one knows the future, and the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.
But what does all of this mean for us as current college students? I think we ought to examine where we are individually and ask ourselves two difficult, important questions: Why am I here and should I be here?
To be clear, I love this school. I can’t imagine having attended college anywhere other than Mercer, and I know that the benefits from my time here extend far beyond whatever income I may earn in the future. However, I also realize that, depending on your individual goals and where you hope to be at the end of the day, attending Mercer might not be in your best interest.
If you aren’t the most academically gifted student and your overarching goal is simply to get a good job, I think you should at least consider the possibility that you could end up like the guy who served my barbecue this summer and research other options that might be better for you.
Though I’m scared to say it, your Mercer education – as excellent as it is – may not be worth what you are paying. Ultimately, I am convinced that, for many students, other paths, such as attending community college and then transferring to a bachelor’s program – would be more beneficial.
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