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Is a college degree worth it? Define “worth”

In business, education, news, parenting, work on May 17, 2012 at 12:40 am
Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toron...

Victoria College, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the biggest issues in American public discourse right now is the ballooning cost of attending university — or “college” as it’s generally referred to here. The price is rising more than 5 percent annually and students are graduating with enormous debt into a marketplace with very few jobs open to an eager 22-year-old with, usually, almost no work experience.

The New York Times addressed this in a recent front-page story:

“I’ll be paying this forever,” said Chelsea Grove, 24, who dropped out of Bowling Green State University and owes $70,000 in student loans. She is working three jobs to pay her $510 monthly obligation and has no intention of going back.

“For me to finish it would mean borrowing more money,” she said. “It makes me puke to think about borrowing more money.”

‘Nothing Is Free’

Christina Hagan is an Ohio lawmaker who says students need to understand that attending college is not an entitlement. Last year, she was appointed to fill a seat once occupied by her father in the Ohio House of Representatives.

Ms. Hagan, 23, is also a college student.

She will graduate shortly from Malone University, an evangelical college in Canton, Ohio, with more than $65,000 in student debt (among her loans is one from a farm lender; she had to plant a garden to become eligible). Though she makes $60,000 a year as a state representative, she plans to begin waiting tables in the next few weeks at Don Pancho’s, a Mexican restaurant in Alliance, Ohio, to help pay down her student loans and credit cards. She pays about $1,000 a month.

“I placed a priority on a Christian education and I didn’t think about the debt,” said Ms. Hagan, who says she takes responsibility for her debt and others should do the same. “I need my generation to understand that nothing is free.”

For those of you who live beyond the U.S., this must seem an odd situation. In some nations, higher education is free or much more heavily subsidized by the government. Or only the intellectually elite get to attend university at all while others — wisely — move into study for work they’d enjoy and for jobs that actually need filling.

In the mid-1970s I paid — yes, seriously — $660 a year for my education at the best school in Canada, then and now, at Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto. I had a tiny stipend from my family ($250 to 350 a month) and paid the rest of my bills by freelancing as a writer and photographer, beginning the summer of my sophomore year.It’s now about $5,000 a year to attend the equal of a Harvard in Canadian terms; Harvard and its ilk are about $50,000 a year.

That’s a brand-new luxury car every year for four years.

To afford my life and schooling, I lived alone in a very small apartment in a bad neighborhood, then moved to a small apartment in a better one. (My parents had wandered off to live on a boat in Europe for a few years.)

By the time I graduated, I had no debt and many national magazine and newspaper editors who had already been working with me. I didn’t even look for a staff job until I was 26.

So what was the value of my college degree?

Hard to say. I loved the beauty of our campus, the many clubs and sports and activities, the diversity and intelligence of my classmates and the brilliance of my professors, who were scary as hell and expected a great deal from us. I did get some very good grades in my first year and was told that writing should be my career by one professor, whose praise meant a great deal to me.

I started writing for the weekly college newspaper before I even attended my very first class. Yes, I was that driven. I knew I wanted to become a journalist — let’s get started! I didn’t ever attend a journalism school but preferred a super-demanding English lit. program that taught me to think critically, write long, argue hard for my ideas and work independently.

All of which are exactly the skills I needed and still use today, 30+ years after graduation.

No employer has ever asked my opinion of Chaucer or 16th. century theater or Victorian poetry, that’s for sure. But the underlying skills and strengths that got me in and through are what mattered.

So that’s part of the challenge. You can get high marks and love your professors but come out clueless and awaiting direction rather than being a resourceful self-starter. The people who thrive in times of economic chaos.

Like now!

I don’t envy any student trying to choose a form of higher education they hope will lead to paid employment, sooner rather than later. Some Americans have chosen to study in Scotland at St. Andrews or in my native Canada, where they get a great education at a much lower price than even some state schools in the U.S. — plus the invaluable experience of living and working in another country and its culture.

If I were the parent of an independent teen heading for college, I’d ship them off to Canada or Europe in a heartbeat; they’ll be working and competing in a global economy anyway, so they might as well start to really understand how the rest of the world thinks and behaves!

Do you think college is worth it anymore?

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