Over the years, a specific and relatively modern debate has been engaged; namely, is a college degree the unquestionably valuable achievement it has long been taken to be? Several factors go to this controversy, each of them highly significant. There is, first and foremost, the matter of expense. The costs, in plain terms, have been consistently rising for years, and for all types of higher education. The selective university begins at over $22,000 per year in tuition and fees, and even the vast majority of colleges demand approximately $13,000 and more annually (Ehrenberg 4). As the inflation of the late 20th century and the more recent recession have amply demonstrated, it is difficult to rely on the economy in any sense, and potential college students of all ages are compelled to seriously consider the sheer affordability of attending. That same recession goes to another issue, in that the high-paying career once assumed to be a consequence of college is by no means assured. Certainly, graduates are better poised to secure better-paying jobs, but there is an irony here; such jobs are often corporate, and there has been immense instability in corporate life in modern decades. Put another way, the graduate may secure the good job only to see their employer go under, and be themselves in a fiercely competitive market offering fewer opportunities.
On one level, it is arguable that the debate is meaningless. The most recent Department of Labor statistics indicate, in fact, that the college degree has never been more valuable, in terms of employment. Graduates now earn 98 percent more per hour than others, and this is as well an increase reflecting consistent rises over the last few decades (Leonhardt). In purely economic terms, then, the degree is of clear value. On another level, however, this is not as conclusive a reality as it may appear, and certainly when factors beyond income are taken into account. If the colleges are enabling higher income levels, it is also – and increasingly emphatically – felt that this in itself marks an agenda not necessarily in keeping with the truer value of the education. More exactly, there is the undeniable trend in place for students to pursue college solely because it will translate to commercial opportunity. The colleges as well seem to embrace this agenda:
“Schools are increasingly concentrating on teaching what they perceive to be the technical
needs of their students’ potential employers” (Childers). This then raises the very serious question of worth. While college has long been seen as a means to move forward financially, it was as well viewed as a crucial process in which a student gains knowledge not inevitably going to a career. The modern focus on employment potentials then weakens what may well be considered the greater value of college. Then, and even as the wage gaps between college graduates and others increase, there is an interesting distinction; namely, only graduates experience the higher wages, and those who attend for years and do not attain their Bachelor’s degree are typically locked in the income brackets defining those who never attend college (Leonhardt). This suggests that society itself has altered its perceptions of education, and is concerned only with evidence of attainment, rather than actual attainment. In plain terms, the social value of the degree has been permitted to change the actual value, or defy further traditional ideas of the college education as a foundation of knowledge. Once again, then, value is questionable.
Ultimately, however, the true answer to the initial question lies, in a sense, in there being no definitive answer. If graduates have consistently earned more in recent decades, it is reasonable to argue that further shifts in the economy, as well as a saturation of graduates, will alter this. Even if the pattern remains in place, also, there remains the answer not subject to financial considerations. The real worth of the college degree must be determined by the student, and based only upon that student’s own ambitions. The student wishing to gain the degree for career opportunity is obligated to determine as best as possible that likelihood, just as the student concerned only with learning must decide if college will provide this as desired. In all cases, there can be no value to the education or degree save that which is actually contributed by the student’s efforts and ambitions. The college degree, in short, is worth the expense when the individual believes it is worth the expense, and is committed to the experience as meeting their own needs.
- Childers, Dr. Joseph W. Examining the Value of a College Degree. Payscale, 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2014. http://www.payscale.com/content/value-college-degree.pdf
- Ehrenberg, Ronald G. Tuition Rising: Why College Costs So Much. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2009.
- Leoinhardt, David. “Is College Worth It? Clearly, New Data Say.” The New York Times. 27 May 2014, Web. 14 Nov. 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/27/upshot/is-college- worth-it-clearly-new-data-say.html?abt=0002&abg=1