For more than 100 years, college has been considered a sound and desirable investment in one's financial future. But unlike other forms of investment, those contemplating dropping more than $100,000 to obtain a degree from a private university, or $28,000 for one from a public university, seldom stop to consider whether what made sense for a previous generation still makes sense today.
Although most middle-class parents regard the idea of not "investing" in their children's college degrees about as positively as necrophilia and cannibalism, examining the current value proposition of higher education should not be a controversial concept. The fact that National Lead may have been a great investment in 1910 doesn't mean that it is in 2010. Apple was a fantastic investment in 1990, but looks significantly less promising now that its $233 billion market cap has exceeded Microsoft's.
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In 1986, the year I graduated from high school, the average annual tuition at private and public universities was $13,094 and $2,781 in constant 2009 dollars. In 2010, these averages had risen to $26,273 and $7,020, an increase of 101 percent and 152 percent, respectively. During that time, the number of full-time students enrolled in American universities increased 32 percent faster than the general population, thus rendering a degree roughly one-third more common than it had been 24 years ago.
Since enrollment in private universities and colleges makes up 18.7 percent of total college enrollment, combining these two factors indicates that at current prices, the average college degree has lost 72.5 percent of its value since 1986. While this most certainly does not mean that no college degree is worth obtaining, it strongly suggests that it is absolutely vital for recent graduates to sit down and seriously take a look at the question of whether the specific college education they are thinking of purchasing is worth the time, money and opportunity cost.
And in some cases, it is the latter that is most expensive. Where would Bill Gates be today if he had not dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft? He would almost surely be successful, but it is highly unlikely that he would be anywhere nearly as successful as he is now. In retrospect, one of the biggest mistakes I ever made was returning to college my junior year to finish my degree rather than dropping out to develop and sell a technological device I had created. By the time I graduated two years later, the window of opportunity had closed.
Furthermore, as the college graduate class of 2009 has discovered, and as the newly minted graduates of 2010 are about to learn, a college degree is no guarantee of a good job, or even a job of any kind. The National Association of Colleges and Employers reports that only 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates who applied for a job actually had one by the time they graduated. Nor is a degree from an elite school necessarily a panacea. Cornell University reported in April that only half of its 2009 graduating class had found employment within six months of graduation.
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The important thing is to remember that a college degree is not synonymous with an education. Ironically, due to grade inflation, political correctness and an ever-increasing panoply of junk majors such as women's studies, African-American studies, gay studies and business, a college degree has probably never been less educational. And the credentialism that is rife within large American corporations notwithstanding, the approval of the academic world has probably never been more meaningless.
Now, a college degree may well make sense for you if you are pursuing a career that genuinely requires specific academic credentials. But if you are not, or if you do not have a specific career in mind, the declining value and increasing price of a college degree almost surely means that it does not.
One final note: Because one cannot default on student loans, not even in personal bankruptcy, one should never, ever, consider borrowing money to purchase a college degree. It is bad enough to find oneself working at a low-income job after spending tens of thousands of dollars on a useless college degree, but it is even worse to be forced do so to pay the interest on the loan used to obtain it.