Tag Archives: value

Is College Worth It?

CollegeA recent survey done by the Pew Research Center found that Americans both with and without college degrees accurately estimate the difference in average yearly earnings at $20,000. The official number, according to the report, is just a hair under that at $19,550.

Of course, a closer look at their research shows that even that number varies greatly depending on field of study. For example, as you can see in chapter 5 of their study, liberal arts and education degrees are worth significantly less than an engineering degree. In fact, a degree in education is worth about half a million dollars less than the average Bachelor’s degree over the course of a working life. But I digress.

The real question here is the title of the study: is college worth it? It’s a question that does not often come up in discussions about K-12 education, but one that really should. Often (as is the case in my district) the assumption is that college is not only worth it, but almost required. The majority of our students graduate and go on to college. However, “the majority” is certainly not “all,” so the question becomes much more immediate. We are in the business of preparing students for success beyond high school, and if “success” does not necessarily mean going to college, we should be preparing students for whatever “success” might look like.

I have slowly come to believe that perhaps college (particularly 4-year liberal arts study) is really not ideal or necessary for many of the students we work with every day. Let’s ignore the rapidly increasing cost of a college education. I know a number of students who, as 9th graders, are excited about the prospect of doing some sort of skilled labor. One 9th grader, in particular, is already doing an apprenticeship as a blacksmith and is incredibly excited about that opportunity. Moreover, the Pew study shows that it’s very possible for them to make a better living doing this kind of skilled labor. It begs the question: is it worth it for this student to continue with a school and curriculum that is focused on preparing him for college?

Mike Rowe, of Dirty Jobs fame, talked to the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee about this topic and espoused the desperate and immediate need for skilled labor across the country (read the text of his speech here). In the talk, Rowe shares a valuable insight and some interesting numbers. Most notably, he says

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The Skills Gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them. [Emphasis Added]

If we are preparing students to be successful the real world, it would seem that helping them develop valuable skills in these trades is one means to that end. These skills, as Rowe points out, are lifelong skills that don’t go away. In addition, as my own father likes to point out, skilled labor simply cannot be outsourced. Having this sort of skill is job security, and for many in those fields, it pays very well (in all likelihood, much better than teaching does).

In addition, such as that in this New York Times article, is suggesting that maybe a college education isn’t impacting students anyway. In fact,

a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years.

If a student goes to a 4-year college and demonstrates absolutely no gains in thinking skills (as 36% of the subjects did), there seems to be a serious problem with the quality of the “education” these students are receiving. As we in K-12 education are trying to educate students and prepare them to be successful after high school, if the colleges they attend are not helping prepare them to be even more successful, what is the point (apart from, of course, that magical degree)?

So the question posed by the title of the Pew survey remains – is college worth it? As is nearly always the case, the answer is much more complex than “yes” or “no.” However, I think it might be safe for us to say that college is likely not the best option for every student. In fact, for many, there are probably better options that will allow them to be more successful in every regard than a college education would.


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