Is College Worth the Money?

Anna Y. H. Zhong

In this series, Flyby Staff Writer Olivia M. Munk identifies, dissects, and discusses ideas, articles, and opinions found in popular media and popular culture. She's here to inform you and to make you think—about what's out there, what it means to us, and what it might mean for you.

WHAT IT IS

In the wake of the Great Recession, formal college education and its ever-increasing price tag has been under scrutiny from the popular media. To make higher education accessible for all, Bill Gates, Florida governor Rick Scott, and others have proposed the implementation of a $10,000 bachelors degree program. Is it possible? A recent op-ed in the New York Times details Arthur C. Brooks' flirtation with traditional college, followed by what his parents fondly dubbed a "gap-decade," and finally a return to academia by correspondence. Brooks managed to complete his undergraduate degree as well as two graduate ones without obtaining a cent of debt, and most importantly, all for less than $10,000.

WHY IT CAUGHT OUR ATTENTION

Everyone knows the jab at the price of college (specifically, the cost of Harvard) from "Good Will Hunting": most of us are paying $150,000 for an education that, with a bit of determination and and a membership card, we could have gotten for $1.50 in late fees at the library. Unfortunately, the worn-down strip on a library card doesn't replace the increasing need for a B.A., or even an M.A., if we want to get jobs in this competitive economy (unless, of course, you create the most popular social networking website of all time out of your dorm room and eschew a degree entirely).

SO WHAT?

Brooks specifically notes that at times his "college education has been the target of ridicule," and that he is "no Harvard man." Is a Harvard education the antithesis of the move towards education on a budget?  It is an undeniable fact that the high price of residential four-year colleges in the U.S. shuts out many students who cannot pay; others who are willing to take out loans graduate with crippling debt in an already uncertain job market. Some of the most recent statistics about the cost of college are almost comical: with two thirds of college grads facing an average debt of $20,000, those who work at the ubiquitous Starbucks would have to make 228,000 cups of coffee to pay off their (seemingly useless) degree; 1 in 5 grads must accept a job that doesn't even require a degree; while the average family income grew 147% from 1982-2007, the cost of a bachelor's degree rose 440%. With staggering numbers like these, it's hard to not see the incredible appeal of a $10,000 education.

Brooks' tale is one of enormous success—to support a family while simultaneously earning a degree is nothing short of a herculean effort. But his method is not the only newly innovative way to earn an education on a budget; massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have gained recent popularity (see, for example, Harvard and MIT's own edX initiative). Community colleges, long since a more wallet-friendly method of earning a degree, cost approximately $3,000 a semester for a two-year associate's degree; city or state universities cost more than twice as much for a four-year bachelor's degree.

The graduation rates for these programs is what is sobering. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, only 35.4% of all students in Massachusetts public colleges graduated in 4 years; 56.4% did so in 6 years. The rates plummet to 16.4% for 2-year programs, while private colleges have nearly double those graduation rates.

THE TAKEAWAY

The $10,000 degree is a wonderful idea—get a degree that would have otherwise put you into debt, graduate with no loans and burst forth into the job market a newly minted college grad. But what the idea doesn't address is the reason why so many students fail to graduate from college in the first place. As a college student just entering her second semester, I know I could have never done what Brooks did—I've come to rely on the extensive advising and support systems offered at Harvard through academic advisors, PAFs, proctors, and most importantly, fellow students. Yes, living and studying at Harvard and other four-year residential colleges costs a lot more than $10,000. But most college-age kids I know wouldn't be able to have the discipline or wherewithal to complete their coursework through correspondence. Will a $10,000 degree provide advising and counseling? Could the student conceivably speak to a professor, or discuss a paper and study for an exam with a fellow degree candidate? Or will it, like so many of the more expensive degree programs in place today, yield low graduation rates? Unfortunately, Brooks' experience seems to be the exception, not the rule.

The main problem with the gross discrepancy between cost and success in the U.S. collegiate system is one that digs deeper than a price tag—it has roots in the delicacy of our economy, issues with public elementary, middle, and high school systems, as well as scholarships, grants, and continuing advising programs. States such as Florida and Texas are currently on their way to implementing such a program in their public universities system. Only time will tell if their soon-to-be-matriculated students will be as successful at education on a budget as was Arthur C. Brooks.

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