New Thinking for New Times:


Is College Really Necessary?


" Today, a college education is more of an indication of family background and financial wherewithal than of intellectual competence."

" Nearly 30 percent of junior college graduates now out earn counterparts who have bachelor degrees from four-year universities."


Except for specialized fields, the answer to the question, "is college necessary for success," is no.

Even so, for decades it has almost been a "given" that when young people graduate from high school they will (if at all possible) go to college. 

Parents plan ahead for this and often go into debt to see that their children have the "advantage of a college education."

But given certain realities that we'll cover here, this assumption is now being questioned. (We’ll warn you at the outset that at first glance much of this information seems contradictory.)

Let's start with the rise in college tuition and fees, which, as you can see below, has been increasing much faster in the United States than the general cost of living -- or nearly 600% since 1985. 

  College Tuition Increase Over Time

The above represent 2011 figures.  Currently, these costs are higher, pushing the cumulated debt for a college education in the United States to well over a billion dollars.

These tuition costs often have little to do with academics. College sports programs, which students may not even be interested in, account for almost 50% of tuition costs at some colleges.

Coaches are the highest paid employees in 41 states, and are often paid more than university presidents, staff doctors, or lawyers.

Other costs that inflate tuition include impressive dorms, which, although they give good initial impressions for students scouting for a college, they do little to enhance the caliber or quality of education.

Given the cost of college in the United States, some high school graduates are going to college in Canada, a country that is known for an excellent system of higher education at a reasonable cost. Some students are opting for college in Germany, which is even more reasonable.

In the United States many college graduates are struggling to find jobs while trying to pay off a mountain of debt. They had assumed their sacrifices in getting an advanced education would pay off, at least in a monetary way. 

But as witnessed by the number of college graduates working in minimum-wage jobs today it clearly hasn't.

" According to a Rutgers University poll of 571 graduates from 2006 to 2010, just over half had full-time jobs and about half of those jobs were low-paying jobs that didn't require bachelor's degrees."

There is no doubt that college preparation is essential for certain specialized professions. Medicine, law and engineering come immediately to mind.

But in non-technical areas things have changed in recent years.  For one thing, a college education is not the proof of aptitude or general competency that it once was.

The main goal of many cash-strapped colleges today is to retain students and keep tuition money coming in (read: meet student retention goals).

And too often the goal of lending agencies is to sell young people on the need for a college degree, for which they have to borrow money (read: reap years of interest on the loans).

Average course grades have gone up (read: grade inflation) and course requirements have been watered down.

Too often, beneficial but demanding coursework is discouraged to keep students from dropping out of a college.

A greater emphasis is being placed on teacher evaluations (read: teacher popularity) at the expense of rigor and results. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, some of today's college graduates are so poorly prepared that they graduate with little more than a paper diploma and an expanded Facebook page.

 In a typical semester half of the students surveyed didn't study more than five hours a week, and for that they earned a 3.16 GPA.

According to the Times, the fault lies with universities who are focusing on increased revenue, soft courses, inflated grades and "deluxe dorm rooms."

We, of course, can't lump all colleges together. There are a few demanding, top-notch colleges that still provide real value for the investment. 

Based on my own time on the Admissions Committee of a large East Coast university, I know that  there are some colleges -- primarily private unaccredited religious colleges -- that provide little in the way of a true university education.

Although some parents prefer these schools because of their sectarian in locus parentis approach, graduates are not highly regarded by employers.

 We can't deny that the highest percentage of young people out of work in the U.S. right now are those without a college degree. We also can't deny that college graduates on average make significantly more than non-graduates.

However, the question is how much of this is due to what is learned in college and how much is due to cultural differences.

There is no doubt that family backgrounds that encourage learning and by extension the value of an advanced education, create a strong work ethic and that, in turn, is related to success.

At the same time, according to those who study these things, success almost always comes down to an individual's attitude, willingness to learn and adapt, and determination to succeed. Although these things may be related to a college education they are not dependent on it.

" For the first time in history we have the Internet and free, readily available sources of information that go far beyond what's found in college textbooks."

And there is no doubt that in many cases a college education with the associated extra-curricular activities, ability to associate with noted instructors, and the contacts that can be made, are valuable.

At the same time, employers that have been disappointed in the abilities of many recent college graduates are catching onto the fact that a college education no longer guarantees competence.

In some politically influential U.S. sub-groups there is an unspoken bias against higher education in general. These people typical see higher education as being in conflict with  traditional views.

In some states less than half of the politicians that control the budgets for higher education have any personal college experience. (A college education among state legislators ranges from about  25% in Alabama to about 90% in California).

There is an unspoken anti-education bias among some legislators who feel that higher education can conflict with their conservative views. *

* One legislator who was opposed to spending money on a foreign language curriculum reportedly started his argument with, "If English was good enough for Jesus...."

So, what's the answer?  We'll say once again, with or without a college degree, success almost always comes down to an individual's attitude, willingness to learn and adapt, and determination to succeed.

-Ron Whittaker

  • See this Slate article, Sticker Price 101.

  • Students who took out college loans for college in 2009 had an average of $24,000 to pay back. Since 2009, this total has increased ten to fifteen percent.

  • At the University of Michigan, more entering freshmen in 2003 came from families earning at least $200,000 a year than came from the entire bottom half of the income distribution. At some private colleges, the numbers were even more extreme. (New York Times, 5/25/2011)

  • It is not unheard of today for students to take out $250,000 in loans to cover the cost of a private-college education.

  • College debt today in the U.S. totals more than a billion dollars, even more than the total credit card debt for the country.

  • There are some important opposing facts to what's covered above that need to be considered.

  • See also Before You Decide On a College on this site.

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