Earlier this month, Salon posted an article, “College is ripping you off: Students are cash cows and schools are the predators.” The title says nearly all of importance that may be said of this article. It’s just breath-taking in the extent of its charges, cherry-picking of evidence and general tenor. Quite clearly, I do not believe college is a rip off. Still, the article’s questioning of value – its questioning of what exactly about college adds value – its attention to institutional incentives and financial aspects of higher education – for example, are questions not without merit.
I don’t have a window on what prompted this article. Surely, the article has some political currency. The Obama Administration is surely supportive of more students going to college. And, this article in Salon comes comes with a series of other articles about the value of a college education and maybe a report, “Regardless of the Cost, College Still Matters,” by the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution. I’ve not read this latest report on the value of a college education all that carefully, but pretty much, I take its results to be the conventional wisdom: College graduates earn more than students who don’t go to college. And, I take it that the value of a college education, on average, exceeds its very real costs. See also: an article in U.S. News & World Report, “There Is Value in Liberal Arts Education, Employers Say,”
(A related report, on the selection of a college major, “Major Decisions: What Graduates Earn Over Their Lifetimes” also produced by the Hamilton Project, calculates that college graduates with a major of Political Science or Government earn more than such graduates with most other majors – including majors of business management and administration. Although graduates with majors in economics, finance and engineering – on average – do eclipse the earnings of political science majors. I just thought readers of this blog – both of them – might be interested in that finding.)
Other recent articles in The Washington Post and Forbes put a different spin on the topic of the value of a college education, and I think they’re worth noting. Kathleen Parker writes on “The diminishing returns of a college education.” She observes that college is becoming less affordable, and then cautions, “that even at our highest-ranked colleges and universities, students aren’t getting much bang for their buck.” Drawing on reports by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, she raises concerns about “increasing lack of academic rigor, grade inflation, high administrative costs and a lack of intellectual diversity.”
Robert Farrington in Forbes bemoans the “politicization” of the public school system, and writes of a “mentality that college is a requirement.” Even conceding real value in a college education, he observes that where once a college education was a gateway to a salaried position, now it opens the door only to hourly work.” To get a better job, he advises students, “The key is that you have to differentiate yourself from other college graduates, and “more education” or fancier degrees don’t do it. What employers want to see is experience, skill, and value.”
The concerns expressed by Parker and Farrington are real enough. I don’t have rigorous data to confirm or controvert these later two views; my stories from working with students on jobs after college aren’t even particularly good. I can agree with their recommendations to students to take a demanding and academically intense curriculum, and I think that some attention to developing a portfolio of job-related skills is a wonderful idea. None of these suggestions negative the point on the very real and great value of a college education.