Throughout the 20th century, college has been seen as a path to the middle class and beyond. A ticket to a decent paycheck, standard of living, and career advancement. Recent coverage, however, has highlighted massive student debt, opportunity costs, and a wave of flashy entrepreneurs who are drop outs. This begs the question of whether college is still worth it. The fact of the matter is, for most Americans college is worth it more than ever.
If you've looked into the matter, you've probably seen the much-bandied-about statistic that student loan debt has topped $1 trillion as of 2013. While this is a massive number (some $300 billion more than outstanding credit card debt), it becomes more manageable when looking at debt per borrower. Horror stories about jobless graduates with over $100,000 in debt are the exception, not the rule. Only 3% of borrowers owe more than $100,000, and only 1% owe more than $200,000. Keep in mind that these debt numbers include students graduating from professional or medical schools as well. And both professional and medical schools are known for higher levels of student debt, and higher payoffs in salary and job security.
It is important to note that average student debt per borrower is accelerating at a rapid pace. From 2008-2012, student loan debt per borrower increased 6% yearly. For many, this begs the question, is higher education worth 6% more every year?
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Perhaps not indefinitely. But for now, the answer is a definitive yes. Through the recession, an increase in student loans taken out was inevitable. With less cash on hand, many families couldn't contribute as much to their children's educations. And remember, universities took a hit with the recession as well.
With many endowments suffering, the ability to grant financial aid suffered. But that's all past now.
At the risk of sounding like an idealist, it's important to gain a bit of perspective on the costs of higher education. Higher education is costly. It's more than most families or individuals can fork out on the spot, but so are many other things, such as medical costs, cars, or mortgages. Higher education is a one time cost (you don't need to repair or replace it) that opens up a range of occupational and personal opportunities for an entire lifetime. Yes, some majors are more lucrative than others, and yes, some schools are more expensive, or provide less financial aid than others, but that's not a structural problem with higher education.
The proverbial saying "college isn't for everyone" is true. Higher education doesn't align with everyone's talents or goals.
On rare occasions potential students would have to sacrifice significant opportunities in order to attend school. These potential opportunities that would be missed in the event of attending college are known as the opportunity cost of college. Many arguments against the current worth of higher education center on opportunity costs.
Barring those with incredible talents that don't require higher education (think professional athletes, actors, or self-taught programmers), the largest opportunity costs of college are four years in which it's difficult to work full time, and the corresponding potential for advancement in those four years of work. As the average hourly wage of college graduates is $32.60 an hour, and $16.50 an hour for those without a college degree, the first opportunity cost is easy.
The average hourly wage for college graduates is roughly double that of non-college graduates. This means on average, that college graduates earn the missed income from working full time in college plus the current income of non-college educated workers. In this event, it takes college graduates the amount of time they were in school to re-earn their missed potential earnings. If it took you four years to graduate from college and you're making an average college graduate's salary, it will take you four years to recoup this type of opportunity cost.
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For the advancement opportunity cost of attending college, it should be noted that most careers reserve management positions for employees with both experience and higher education. If you take advancement in a broader sense, increase in clients, rates, or the building of your business can all be achieved by those without higher education. A startling set of facts unearthed by the NY Times, however, is that for common careers not requiring higher education, those with higher education still tend to earn more in the exact same roles. The median salary for dishwashers, childcare workers, dental hygienists, hairdressers, and cashiers is more than 1/3 higher for four-year college graduates than it is for non-college graduates in the same position.
College Isn't Really That Expensive
A final element of arguments against the value of higher education centers around increasing tuition costs. While the cost of higher education is rapidly increasing, a distinction that isn't often made is that just because the "sticker price" of higher education is increasing, this doesn't mean that the final cost to students is increasing at the same rate. Particularly when looking solely at tuition, and not room and board, the cost of college is–in many situations–more manageable than ever.
On average, 2013-14 tuition at public two-year colleges was $3,260 a year. Meanwhile, the average grant aid for public two-year college students was greater than $3,260 a year. This rendered the net cost of public two-year colleges as actually negative. For public four-year colleges, the average list price was $8,890. Applying average aid, the net price was reduced to $3,120 a year. The numbers for private four-year colleges included a tuition of $30,094 a year, with an average financial aid package of $17,634.
While room and board increase costs, and there are many outlier schools that cost much more than average, it should be clear that there are affordable options if that's a top priority.
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While 66% of students do receive direct government aid in the form of grants or subsidized loans, and an even greater percentage receive either private or public aid, a third of all full-time students do still pay the full sticker price. For the upper middle class, college has become more expensive. The silver lining is that in general those who don't qualify for financial aid don't truly need it, and that a range of achievement based scholarships are available at nearly every school. The bottom line is that there is a huge range of types of school and tuition costs from which to choose. Today, there are schools for almost everyone.