Is College Worth It?

The Providence Journal recently reported $57,232 as Brown’s sticker price for the 2013-14 school year. An increase of 4% over last year’s tuition, the seemingly constant annual increase in cost has led some to question, “Is college worth it?” This was the focus of the Janus Forum Lecture held on Thursday, February 21st at MacMillian Hall. The discussion brought two distinguished thinkers with opposing answers to Brown for a community dialogue on the question.

From flickr, by John McStravick. Used under the Creative Commons License.
From flickr, by John McStravick. Used under the Creative Commons License.

Richard Vedder, a professor emeritus at Ohio University in Athens, OH and author of Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much, quickly reminded the audience of the force of economics. “For a growing proportion of Americans, attending college is not a good proposition,” said Vedder. Why? A time-honored concept: the law of diminishing returns. Vedder noted that 48% of 4-year graduates are in jobs that require less than a 4-year degree. There are high numbers of alumni driving taxis or working at Wal-Mart. 115,000 American janitors currently hold a bachelor’s degree. That is not to say that these jobs are unimportant – far from it. Rather, Vedder believes it is a sign that our educational system is not producing the type of graduates our economy needs. We constantly hear that “our national success and personal success requires a college degree,” noted Vedder. However, when studies show that seniors at American universities have only marginally better critical thinking skills than freshman, Vedder questions what students have to show for their college experience (other than a mountain of student loans, that is).

Vivek Wadhaw, Vice President for Innovation and Research at Singularity University, a nontraditional California business school, attempted to answer that question. He cited Encyclopædia Britannica for context. Only 100 years ago, it was considered to hold most of the information you might ever need to know – and was a privilege reserved only for the very rich. Now, with the advent of new services (e.g., libraries) and mediums (e.g., the Internet), owning its complete 32 volumes will barely register in comparison to the information now available at our fingertips. For Wadhaw, the value of a liberal arts education grows exponentially given our constantly evolving world. While we cannot predict the jobs of tomorrow, we do know that many of today’s jobs will soon cease to exist (the Encyclopædia stopped publishing its printed edition in 2010). That’s why we need to know how to think, assess, and innovate. The value of universal education is to keep America prepared for the future.

Vedder was still correct, though, that when a degree becomes commonplace, it no longer serves as a gateway – a “certification,” as he put it – to the American dream. In fact, it can actually serve as the opposite. Vedder believes that it is necessary to go to a “top 25” school in order to get society’s lucrative, high-paying jobs today. In this way, American colleges serve to reinforce economic inequality, rather than promote the opposite: Too many “lower-tier” colleges have a majority of students who do not graduate in six years, are not offered jobs upon graduation, and end up saddled with debt, while their schools move on scot-free. “It borders on corruption,” Vedder stammers. Additionally, the fastest-growing jobs are not ones that require a B.A. (or A.B., in Brown’s case). These include home health care aides and administrative assistants, which typically only need a high school diploma. And despite all the hype around STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematic) concentrations, according to Vedder the positions in these fields are no more plentiful.

Neither Vedder nor Wadhaw want America to emulate the Malthuses and Luddites of the world. They both support learning and innovation, but disagree on traditional education’s role in catalyzing them. Regardless, most experts believe the pressures of rising tuition costs on college students will force universities to change soon, or at least align themselves more closely to labor market realities. How universities deal with this (through staff layoffs, decreases in student services, etc.) is yet to be seen. Vedder, a university employee, at one point during the talk said he actually hopes this will occur more quickly, prompting cautious laughter from the audience. He was quick to acknowledge his duplicitous role, though. “I’m a college professor with tenure, I [can] say whatever I want!”

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