Prospective College Students and Parents Are Asking the Wrong Question

It's a question that won't be going away anytime soon: "Is college still worth it?"

I addressed this topic in an earlier blog post, and was also asked by the Orlando Sentinel to argue in favor of pursuing higher education and the inherent benefits it brings to students.

Although it feels redundant answering the same question repeatedly, I welcome the opportunity to enter the conversation whenever possible. As a college president, I am very passionate about our mission, my institution, the students we serve, and the individual and societal benefits of an educated citizenry.

Asking the question, "Is college still worth it?" presents an opportunity for higher education professionals to continue to make our case for the benefits of a degree (students benefit not only professionally, but also by becoming well-rounded, thoughtful citizens). We may grow weary of hearing critics ask this question over and over again, but we must never let it go unanswered.

USA Today recently measured the material value of specific majors. Former Secretary of Education William Bennett even chimed in recently on CNBC, saying that prospective college students should weigh other options.

Two Pew Research studies in 2011 reported that 57 percent of Americans believe that institutions do not provide good value for the money and 75 percent say it is too expensive for most people to afford. Ironically, 86 percent say that it was a good investment for them personally!

But the facts remain. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate in 2011 for people in their 20s with at least a bachelor's degree stood at 5.7 percent, less than a third of the level of workers with only a high-school diploma or G.E.D., which stood at 16.2 percent.

Perhaps even more highly scrutinized than the return on investment that a degree offers after graduation is the cost accrued while students are still on campus. Certainly, colleges and universities need to find ways to lower costs, but students and parents are both perpetrators and victims of high college costs. Students and parents have high expectations of what a college is supposed to offer well beyond the education itself, but they resent the price tag when they see the costs associated with meals, housing, psychological counseling, medical facilities, fitness centers, all the latest technology, athletic programs, fitness centers, and other costly extracurricular amenities and services.

Instead of compiling six figures of debt to obtain a degree, prospective college students and their parents must analyze their personal financial situation as well as their educational needs, motivations, and goals. Issuing a blank check can have negative ramifications. We read a lot about paying too much for college, but you can also pay too little. If you do not get the education you really need -- even if you do receive a diploma -- the return may never be realized.

Perhaps the better questions for prospective students to be asking are:

Which colleges are worth it?

Which college is best for me?

Can I achieve my goals at a less prestigious and less expensive school?

Small classes with lots of personal attention from gifted teachers with Ph.D.'s are costly. But getting lost or left behind in a lecture hall of 500 students for a much lower tuition can ultimately cost the individual more. College is always worth it when you find the one that opens new possibilities for you, enriches your skills, intellect, and social network, helps you earn your diploma and doesn't bury you in debt. Indeed, the average student loan debt for all borrowers at private, non-profit, four-years colleges is $29,000, but the average debt for college graduates is only $19,500.

Students need to assess their needs, motivation, abilities, and financial circumstances and then choose a school that offers them the best chance of earning their degree. College loan debt without a good education and degree is the most costly of all circumstances and a real issue for unfortunate millions.