NEW YORK -- Erik Peterson started questioning the worth of college right about the time he graduated.
Faced with a lack of better options, Peterson moved back in with his parents after earning a degree in computer science from the University of California, San Diego.
For the first few months, Peterson made some extra cash by selling used copies of books from his parents' personal library on Amazon.com.
Peterson, who's 27 and now works as a software engineer, has more than made up for lost time. But the student debt stays with him to this day. It still prevents him from moving out and getting his own place.
"The debt picks at your brain," says Peterson. He took out more than $85,000 in student loans in order to finish his degree. He's already paid back about $10,000. "For me, college has been worth it, but it does have a cost and if you come out owing money, it holds you back from starting the rest of your life."
Many attribute it to the lackluster economy and the rising cost of college, combined with more graduates saddling themselves with increasing amounts of debt. Whatever the reason, more and more are asking: Is college worth it?
Of the 2,142 surveyed, 57 percent claim that higher education fails to provide adequate value in return for increasingly high costs. Further, 75 percent said that college is too costly for the average citizen to afford.
"The debate around higher education seems to be rising in importance," said Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center. Taylor attributed the growing concern to a bad economy and the increasing cost of college, along with student enrollment continuing to rise. "It's a recipe for lots of people to ask: What's going on here and is it working well for everybody?"
According to the College Board, tuition at private universities has tripled over the past three decades. Meanwhile, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reports that tuition has increased at a rate of 5.6 percent per year beyond the rate of general inflation.
Despite the growing skepticism and increased expense, college remains a universal aspiration in this country -- 94 percent of the parents Pew surveyed plan on sending their child to college.
“It goes to show that the public understands that the only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college," said Taylor, who also coauthored the report.
"It makes you a more cultured, more thoughtful, more interesting person," said Andrew Hacker, professor of political science at Queens College and coauthor of "Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids -- and What We Can Do About It."
"College allows you to read Jane Austen, study Plato and know a bit about Fermat's theorem," said Hacker, who believes in college for everyone. "You can't really do Austen, Plato and Fermat on your own.
Hacker described the value of a higher education as the horizontal line that divides American society. "Above the line are people with B.A.'s and below the line are people without them.” In Hacker’s estimation, a college degree provides access to better paying jobs, and a reliable ticket to the middle class.
For those who attended college, a majority in the Pew report said it was a good personal investment. Partly it had to do with an increase in perceived earnings. For instance, those who graduated from a four-year college believed they'd earn $20,000 a year on average. According to Taylor, those estimates closely adhere to recent U.S. Census findings that show the average gap in earnings between college and high school graduates to be $19,550.
Shamus Khan, a sociologist at Columbia University, is tired of hearing from the growing chorus of higher education naysayers. Mostly, because Khan knows that a college education still represents the best shot at getting a decent-paying job.
"Here's what I encourage everyone who thinks college isn't worth it to do: Don't send your kids to college," challenged Khan, who then takes it a step further. "If it's such a rip-off, you should discourage them from going. What's that? You're not going to? Isn’t it funny how that works?"
All things considered, Peterson is still happy he made the choice to attend college.
The debt that he’s repaid has even become a point of pride. At work, he pins his monthly loan statements on a nearby wall, updating it every time he makes a payment.
But Peterson worries about the generation of young people debating whether or not to incur such a cost.
“If you want job that requires a degree, you really don’t have a choice but to take out the debt in order to go to college,” said Peterson. “There are some people that can afford it and most us of that can’t.”
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