This past weekend, high schools across the commonwealth graduated the class of 2013. With the speeches, the parties, and the pomp and circumstance over, thoughts inevitably turn to what lies ahead. And for most middle-class kids today, that means college. But should it? Not necessarily.
Today, too many nonacademic kids are pressured to attend four-year colleges by administrators who prove their worth with average SAT scores and college attendance levels. Recently, I had my hair cut by a young woman who graduated from a high school in an upscale Boston suburb. She told me that she knew from the time she was young that she wanted to be a stylist. Yet, her high school guidance counselor pressured her to apply to college. Although she stood her ground, many of her friends caved — graduating college with astronomical debt and grim job prospects.
The yearly cost of attending our state university now tops $20,000 (UMass Dartmouth costs more than $22,000 a year; UMass Amherst more than $24,000). Out-of-state students pay nearly $40,000 a year to attend our flagship campus. And if you think that’s bad, try Suffolk’s almost $50,000-a-year price-tag or Boston University’s more than $60,000-a-year bill. Is it any wonder that two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients have to borrow money to pay for college? Or that the average student graduates with tens of thousands of dollars in debt — some with debt of more than $100,000? With a still-sluggish economy, many will find their loans difficult — if not impossible — to repay.
All of this raises the question posed by former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett in the title of his new book: “Is College Worth It?” The answer, according to Bennett, is that it depends. From an economic standpoint, the value of college depends on: the quality of the college, the cost of that college, the amount of debt incurred to attend the college, choice of major, and earning potential of graduates in that field. Bennett’s advice is to consider these factors when choosing between colleges or determining whether to even attend a four-year college after high school.
Of course, Bennett recognizes that college is not simply a tool for economic advancement. Any analysis of a college’s “worth” must take into account the intangible reasons people pursue higher education. Does the student want to attend college to expand her mind? To save his soul? To increase her social status? Or does the student simply want to spend four unstructured and unsupervised years fraternizing on her parents’ dime? Only by answering these questions can a family determine the value of the investment.
The liberal-leaning Brookings Institution supports Bennett’s argument. In a recent policy paper, researchers Isabel V. Sawhill and Stephanie Owen argue that, while on average college remains a good investment (the lifetime earnings gap between high school graduates and those with bachelor’s degrees is approximately $570,000), averages don’t tell the whole story.
“By telling all young people that they should go to college no matter what, we are actually doing some of them a disservice,” Sawhill and Owen write.
It is wrong to encourage an academically rudderless student in the bottom 25 percent of his high school class to attend college, if doing so means incurring significant debt. Military service, vocational training, and two-year degree programs are respectable alternatives to traditional colleges, none of which foreclose the option of pursuing a four-year degree in the future. The goal of our high schools should not be four-year college for everyone. Saying so is not elitist. Pretending that it should be is irresponsible.