Do I Need To Go To College?

As students start back to school this fall, many high school juniors and seniors will begin seriously thinking about where they should go to college, but perhaps the question they should answer first is "Should I even go to college at all?"

More than ever before, that's a valid starting point for the discussion, with the cost of post-secondary education soaring well in excess of the inflation rate year after year.

The average cost of tuition and fees in the 2015-16 school year was $9,410 for state residents at public colleges, $23,893 for out-of-state residents at public universities and a staggering $32,405 at private colleges, according to the College Board. And if past is prologue, those figures will rise between 5 and 8 percent again for the coming academic year.

Consequently, students today are graduating tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. The average 2016 graduate carries more than $37,000 in student-loan debt, according to one analyst. To make matters worse, many are graduating with degrees that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to secure a job that will enable them to repay their debt.

This harsh reality must figure into the post-secondary education plans of all but those with no financial concerns. Some students may conclude they don't really need college, that it isn't "worth it."

That said, however, there is more than enough countervailing evidence to indicate that a college degree significantly improves one's earning potential over one's lifetime. In fact, it's not even a close call.

"On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment, from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time," said a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center think tank, "young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education."

Putting a dollar figure on that assertion, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco said that over the course of one's lifetime, a college degree is worth $365,000 for the average American man and $185,000 for the average American woman. (For the record, that differential is less a function of sexism than of differences in fields majored in, occupational choices, length of time in the workforce, number of hours worked, and other factors.)

If that's still not sufficient to persuade you, consider an analysis by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which showed that, in 2015, U.S. employees with a four-year degree made 68 percent more, on average, than those with only a high-school diploma.

As such, the decision properly requires taking the long view. Think of the cost of post-secondary education as investing in your future, with the extra earnings as the "return on investment."

That said, the cost of post-secondary education today is such that -- unlike 20 or 30 years ago, when it was substantially less costly -- college can no longer be treated as a career "holding pattern," for five or six years, or a place to "find yourself."

Billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was guilty of that in his own academic career. "You don't know what to do with your life, so you get a college degree. You don't know what you're going to do with your college degree, so you get a graduate degree," Theil said. "In my case, it was law school, which is the classic thing one does when one has no idea what else to do." (That, in turn, might have been because his undergraduate degree from Stanford was in philosophy, a major for which there is scant market demand.)

This, of course, is not to say that we should follow the Thiel model, since it worked it out so extraordinarily well for him. Or to follow the models of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Rush Limbaugh, who are all college dropouts. If anything, they're all exceptions that prove the rule.

Here is what we know: The real college debate should not be "whether," but rather what type of post-secondary education one should pursue.

That's a separate issue that we'll examine next month in this space.

Vince M. Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way and the author of "One Nation Under Taught: Solving America's Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Crisis."