Is College Worth It?: It Is if We Reinvent It

If the experts truly doubt the value of postsecondary education, they can always have their own kids skip college and send them directly into the workforce. Think many will make that choice?
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There's a disturbing concept floating around. It's popping up fairly regularly in news coverage and often makes its way into op-ed columns and national magazine pieces. In short: Some are asking whether college is worth the money.

Pointing to the dramatic increases in the cost of college and citing various "facts" that raise doubts about the quality and relevance of postsecondary programs, these experts are questioning the value of a college education.

Skeptics of various stripes have shown up in venues ranging from ABC News to the Atlantic. One article employed the term "ripoff," and at least one blogger went so far as to accuse the "college degree industry" of perpetuating a "scam" by emphasizing the need to increase college attainment.

Fair enough. Let's start with what Americans really think of this. According to recent polls by Public Agenda, 55 percent of Americans consider higher education "absolutely necessary for success" in today's economy. That's a dramatic increase from a similar poll taken in 2000, when only 31 percent called college an economic necessity.

The message from the job market is even more compelling. First of all, Bureau of Labor statistics show that, in 2009, 5.2 percent of four-year college graduates were unemployed. For those who had only a high school diploma, the unemployment rate was 9.7 percent.

And the education mandate is sure to intensify in coming years. Noted labor economist Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce has estimated that, by 2018, 63 percent of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. That's a huge increase since the mid-'70s, when less than 30 percent of jobs required anything beyond a high school diploma.

These statistics, coupled with overwhelming evidence from employers around the country, show clearly that the labor market has changed dramatically -- and that the change is permanent. There's no question that global competition and technology have siphoned off or eliminated most low- and middle-skill jobs. Employers are scrambling to fill the growing gap between their needs and workers' skills.

And there's another gap we need to mind: the educational-equity gap separating the nation's various population groups. Census Bureau projections show that, as early as 2042, non-white citizens will constitute a majority of Americans. Unfortunately, our fastest-growing population groups are those that traditionally have had the lowest levels of educational achievement. That's a trend that, if left unaddressed, spells economic catastrophe for all Americans.

The surest way to avert that disaster is to increase college attainment -- particularly among low-income students and students of color, who compose an increasingly large part of the 21st century student population.

College credentials clearly benefit individuals by preparing them for higher-paying jobs and more rewarding careers. Though no guarantee of economic success, a degree or certificate is increasingly considered a prerequisite in today's economy; without one, you're more likely to be poor, and that is a fact.

And boosting college attainment doesn't merely benefit individuals; it also improves society. Studies show that better-educated citizens are less dependent on welfare, more apt to have health insurance, more likely to vote and do volunteer work -- all facts that the contrarians rarely seem to consider.

So when viewed logically from nearly every perspective, there is no doubt that this nation needs to dramatically increase the number of citizens who are college graduates.

Still, the naysayers aren't completely wrong. Major change is needed. In fact, reinvention will be vital if we hope to significantly increase college attainment.

For instance, must ensure that students -- all types of students, from all population groups -- are prepared academically, socially and financially to succeed in college. Also, our shared definition of "college" must expand to include far more than the traditional view of a four-year degree earned at a residential campus. We also must ensure that degrees and credentials represent real and relevant learning, that they have currency and genuine value in today's workplace, that they respond to -- even anticipate -- the changing needs of employers and society. Finally, we must make sure that our higher education institutions are as productive as possible so that we can increase system capacity and graduate more students.

There are two realities this nation must confront. First: We need a lot more people with high-quality degrees and credentials in order to ensure our economic and social well-being.
Second: We will need to significantly improve the way we deliver higher education -- including through new and different providers -- to meet the growing demand for high-quality, affordable learning.

But let's not give too much credit to those who question the value of a college degree. Is college worth it? Of course it is. Besides, if the experts truly doubt the value of postsecondary education, they can always have their own kids skip college and send them directly into the workforce. Think many will make that choice?