Friday, September 7, 2012

Is college worth it?

Food for thought from Bruce Benson, President of CU-Boulder:


As students stream back to our campuses for fall semester, they do so accompanied by a question that is increasing in volume across the country: Is a college education still worth it?

Those questioning the value of college point out the increasing costs, the student debt loads, whether skills are marketable and preparation is practical. Many advocate an increasing focus on trade schools or community colleges, or no college at all.

The questions are fair, but to me the answer is clear. A college education by any measure is perhaps the best investment a person will make for reasons both tangible and intangible.

Increasing costs lead many to look at paying for college much the same way as they view buying a car. There's a high sticker price that is usually discounted, but it still requires years of payment. Meanwhile, the car steadily depreciates. I would suggest a better analogy is a mortgage. People invest in a house that provides them a comfortable place to live over their lives while also serving as a substantial investment, one that appreciates over the long haul. A college education is the same. It is certainly a cost, but more so, it is an investment that pays dividends during a lifetime, even considering debt.

The average debt load upon graduation at CU-Boulder is $23,125 and UCCS is $22,703, below the national average of $25,250 and the Colorado average of $23,622. CU Denver and the CU Anschutz Medical Campus combine student debt averages, which at $26,170 is slightly higher due to higher tuition of students studying for careers in medicine. Default rates across CU are 3.4 percent, well below the Colorado average of 11.5 percent and the national average of 8.8 percent.

Consider the workforce graduates are entering. Critics argue that recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed in great numbers. While true, nearly everyone is affected by the recession, college graduates included. Yet even those who recently earned degrees have fared better during the recession (and certainly did before) than those without a degree.

A recent study by Georgetown University (The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm) shows that a large majority of jobs lost during the recession were those held by workers with a high school diploma or less. While unemployment for all four-year college graduates is 4.5 percent, it is 6.8 percent for recent graduates (those 21-25 years old). At the same time, unemployment for recent high school graduates is nearly 24 percent. Regarding underemployment, the study shows one in seven college graduates was underemployed in May 2012. Nearly half of high school graduates were. Nearly four of every five jobs lost during the recession were held by those with a high school diploma or less.

Various statistics, including those from the U.S. Census Bureau, have shown throughout the years that four-year college graduates earn more than a million dollars more over their lifetimes than those with a high school diploma or less. Critics would say those earnings are skewed by certain high-earning fields such as engineering or business. While we certainly need to ensure our graduates are prepared for productive careers, you cannot underestimate the value of critical thinking, a broad outlook and communication skills in any endeavor. Universities provide those.

Additionally, statistics don't convey the intangibles of a college education. College graduates have more opportunities during their lifetimes, engage in civic and community life at greater rates, and are generally healthier.
While society certainly needs tradespeople, our country's recovery from the recession and future prosperity will rely on the highly skilled workforce prepared at places such as CU.

For more than a century, higher education has been the engine that has fueled American prosperity. It remains critical to the economy, health and culture of our state and nation. So for those joining us as freshmen this fall, or those graduating and entering the workforce later this year, a college education will prove to be a worthy investment.

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