Is a college degree worth it? Define “worth”

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?

55 thoughts on “Is a college degree worth it? Define “worth”

  1. Worth it? Gosh … how does one even begin to define worth? I think so. It wasn’t what I learned I learned at university but ~how~ I learned it that is the most important thing. I learned a way of thinking. Thinking critically and abstractly that I don’t think I’d have got any other way other than being immersed in that environment. Perhaps if I meet a doppelganger from one of my multiverses who learned a different way of thinking I might change my mind 😉

    Tertiary education fees were introduced in Australia in 1989 … the year after I graduated. They were/are called HECS (the Higher Education Contribution Scheme). The science degree I graduated with cost my parents about $400 a year! I’d even taken an extra year because I enjoyed myself a little too much in second year. Nowadays, the same degree would cost maybe $15,000/yr … ridiculous! It’s a tremendous disincentive to go back and study something else! Our government doesn’t seem to value the education enough to want to pay for it.

  2. I think a lot of young people choose studies that they think will yield them high-paying jobs. I firmly believe people should pursue what they love and are passionate about because when they are that driven, as you seem to have been, they find a way…..just my 2 cents…oh wait…we don’t have pennies in Canada anymore….

    1. Hear Hear Diana. Then said people wake up one day with a huge debt doing something that wasn’t their passion to try and pay it off … they get stuck.

    2. I wonder.

      I am driven — but also fairly flexible in what I will do for cash. I was discussing this today with a friend and we agreed that some people simply won’t take work they find dull or tedious. I’ll do anything (ethical/moral/legal) that won’t bore me to utter tears and end up doing stuff that is hardly riveting. I’m pragmatic: income is income!

      1. I’m very platform agnostic when it comes to cash…I figure, the grocery store and mortgage company couldn’t care less if the $$ I pay them with is from work I’ve done for the NYT or some random paid blog post, so why should I? I have plenty of credentials so now it’s more about the moolah.

      2. I agree. I’m young, but I’ve figured out that I’d rather work in a steady job that i don’t hate (but don’t absolutely love) rather than risk it all on passion. My current plan is to find passions that I can do in my spare time to turn into a career one day and transition. It sounds cynical, but I would rather be disappointed about coming to work some days than cry about my inability to pay rent while doing a job I love.

  3. I agree with you, clearly, about the way one is taught to think and analyze material. It gave me an intellectual confidence that has proven utterly necessary to my work as a writer. Being challenged by really tough professors also forced me at a young age to defend my ideas and argue (for) them clearly.

    $15k is a lot…but many US private schools are now easily $30-40K a year. It’s absolute madness to pay that for an undergrad degree unless it’s in engineering and computer science where you’ll likely get hired at $60K+++ right out of school.

    1. I was just talking about science … and we all know how richly rewarded scientists are when they graduate… the costs you quote are not unheard of here in law, medicine and the like

      1. But we also know that the top scientists can make a decent living if they get skilled at writing grants and running successful labs…like everything, success is a greasy pole.

  4. True enough but there’s a deterrence factor that steers people who potentially would have great contributions to make from ever getting started. And applying for grants well, government grants here anyways) rewards those projects and ideas that can be shown to return a profit before they’re even considered. I don’t need to remind people of how many (not only) scientific advances have occurred as a result of research into subjects that seem unlikely at the time to ever show a profit … the so-called blue-sky stuff.

    1. I’m going to be bloody-minded here (imagine that!) and say that, no matter what your goal or ambition, if you want it MORE than anything, you will find a way to achieve it. Or you will realize it’s not worth your time and effort and move on to something else that is.

      I had to totally re-start my career in NY (at the age of 30, in a recession, with no job and no contacts.) Been there, did it.

      1. Bloody-minded(?) … lordy who’d have thought it! 🙂
        I agree and by and large they do succeed. But unfortunately most people don’t know what they want they want to be when they grow … it gets drummed out somewhere.

      2. That’s a whole other problem, and one I hope my next book will be about.

        I think it’s sad and a real waste of talent to merely stumble into a line of work and stay there out of inertia or passivity. My husband and I are super-driven and both knew, at 17, we were dying to become national level journos — and so both of us began freelancing (he in New Mexico, I in Toronto) for national media as undergrads. Until you KNOW what you want you cannot pursue it with the intensity, focus and passion you need to get it (or at least if “it” is something within a competitive field.) I know many people don’t know what “it” is, but there are many ways to narrow that down, whether taking tests and/or (as I’ve also done) informational interviews — i.e. sitting with people who do a certain job you think you’d like to find out its real pro’s and con’s, not just what your college prof tells you.

  5. I think earning your degree is just as much about the experience as is it about receiving a diploma for your efforts. I agree that there are definitely more affordable ways to go about it (I attended university in Europe), but I think that the decision is a very personal one based on interests and priorities. However, I do believe that there are too many attending university because they feel obligated to do so rather than being there because it is what they truly want.

    1. I agree that choice of college is about fit, but I also think…no, that’s not true. One of the trends I find really disturbing is all these American kids picking an undergrad school that costs a FORTUNE and then whining OMG, you mean I owe $900 a month now for all this? Why, yes you do. There is tremendous financial illiteracy when a student graduates and doesn’t get (?) that they have to repay these enormous sums — no matter what.

      I think many feel obligated to get a degree out of fear of NOT having one when the wrong one in the wrong field from a crappy school is a total waste of cash and time. But who says that out loud?

      1. They pick the expensive undergrad schools because of the reputation of the school (although most schools in the US are overpriced at this point). Students think it is worth the $200,000 to graduate from Harvard over the $10,000-20,000 to graduate from a state school because of the school’s “Brand.” The problem is that everyone is convinced that they are obligated to have a degree from the best school possible and in result, they pay a fortune to get it even if it ends up being far from what they are interested in doing (or end up doing). The biggest problem is that there are so many students in the US that graduate with degrees that they can do NOTHING with – they pick majors that don’t lead to careers. They then end up taking jobs that they are not suited for, not properly qualified for (or overly qualified for) and end up miserable and in debt for a very long time. It’s a vicious cycle.

      2. I wonder what the solution is.

        If I were Queen, I’d make every single kid heading for college (esp. any college costing more than $15K a year) take a series of aptitude tests. I’ve done them a few times and learned a lot about how I think, how I listen, how I make decisions and whether I prefer to work with machines, ideas, people or nature…there is a lot one can pull out and refine if the time is spent to do so. I don’t buy this notion you blow $50K a year to find yourself. Jesus.

        I decided to switch careers entirely in 1994 to interior design, having thought long and hard about all my skills, interests and aptitudes — and all the ways I might use those new skills in the marketplace. I spent $8K of my own money (that’s more than my 4 yrs at U of T cost) and took very demanding classes at a very good school. I loved every minute of it (except drafting!) but did not go into the field after all….the entry level money was shit and my marriage had blown up so I couldn’t afford to work for $10 hr for a few years. I also didn’t want to deal with insane clients and being told we could be sued (!) for emotional distress if a client was unhappy made me crazy.

        But LONG before I laid down one penny for design school I went and interviewed three women working IN that field, in three very different jobs. I learned a great deal. Any student with gumption and manners can do the same as a high school junior or senior.

        Every parent should insist on it. (I did this with journalism when I was in high school.) Then any decision is made with information that is current and practical — not some wishful fantasy with an enormous price tag.

      3. I agree with you and I believe my parents raised my brother to do exactly that. My brother did not go to college and my parents did not push him because they knew that it was not the right fit for him whereas I did attend university. I don’t regret my decision at all. I discovered a lot about myself and realized my true passion while I was at university. You can’t put a price tag on that – not that mine was that high.

      4. To get into my college at U of T you needed a specific GPA. You had it and got in or you didn’t. Just that simple. So we knew what we had to achieve and what entree we could get from that.

  6. this is something my ex-wife needs to read. she just helped my daughter get accepted to boston university for $60,000 a year. holy f__k. i went to a state school and got so much financial aid that i actually made money going to school. my ex went to the same school. last week i get a letter from her lawyer asking how i plan to contribute to the tuition. hey, $60,000 exceeds what i clear on my salary. add to that the $1,000 a month she gets in child support, which amounts to $130,000 over the past 12 years. and when i asked how much of that $130,000 she put away for college, the answer was “none.”

  7. There are hundreds of jobs requiring a college degree that shouldn’t. For example, I’ve seen ads for jobs like HR coordinator or admin assistant that require a degree. It’s just silly. You really don’t need a college degree to be able to type what some manager tells you to type or file what he or she tells you to file. As an HR professional, I find the practice of requiring a college degree for jobs that any half intelligent, capable person can learn how to do in about three days to be appalling.

    It’s almost as if, about 60 years ago, someone decided that if he had to get a degree then everybody that worked for him would have to have a degree. I’ve not thought through the following very clearly but bear with me for a moment.

    At the end of WWII, women in the US were being pushed from the workforce so that thousands of returning servicemen could be employed once again. The GI Bill, enacted in 1944, also paved the way for thousands of returning servicemen to get a college degree. The labor force became flooded with college educated men (the supply) so a market (the demand) had to be created to absorb the supply. I mean, how could the federal government justify giving away all that money without creating a demand for those college graduates? By the 60’s and 70’s, intelligent capable women were fed up with being labor and wanted to become management but, without a degree, they were pigeon-holed into lower paying clerical and manufacturing jobs. And, there the cycle began. Get a degree and get a better paying job. Use the brain instead of brawn. To join the boys club you gotta pay the dues. Create a demand for education and the cost goes up, up, up. Basic supply and demand economics.

    Okay, so maybe I’m crazy … or maybe not.

      1. Good to know. It’s late and I’m pretty sleepy so not too sure I’m thinking clearly. I think, though, that the requirement for a degree has become a vicious cycle. Sort of a merry-go-round and everyone is afraid to jump off.

  8. @goodoldgirl – they increased the number of graduates here in Australia simply by converting technical colleges into universities … Voila … more tertiary graduates!

  9. Pingback: 19 Things That All High School Students Should Be Told Before They Go To College | Is the End soon?

  10. EduDad

    I am Canadian and without my education I wouldn’t have the life I have today. However, that education has costed me dearly. I am still paying students loans and will be for another 2 years. The jobs we get don’t match the debt it costs to get them. It would be nice to see businesses or government helping the “professional and poor” because of the burden of student loan debt.

    1. This is interesting as Canadian school debt is, relative to the US, so much lower. But I know, and remember from living there, that Canadian salaries can be quite shockingly low as well.

      1. EduDad

        Aside from lower salaries we have very high utility costs, high taxes, high fuel costs, and high food prices. I can’t imagine how I’d get by if my student loans were any bigger.

      2. From what I’ve heard (and I come back to Canada 2-5 times every year to visit family and friends in Ontario), food costs about same as here. Canadian taxes and fuel (becs of inbuilt taxes) are higher but, as you know, they also subsidize/make possible a college education at 10% of the cost here for a an Ivy and maybe even half the cost of a state school.

        High utility costs? In a country that sells hydro and gas and oil to us? Hm. I remember them being MUCH lower than we pay here.

        We’re paying $4.00+ per gallon here and the whole thing is corporate greed, with a very small percentage of that going to state taxes, and that varies widely….NJ (across the river from me) always has much cheaper gas for that reason.

        Americans are well and truly screwed by the insane cost of health insurance and co-pays to even use it — my PT for my hip cost me $250 a month for two months. Not a fortune, but a lot of of additional cost I had to pay. I went to see an “out of network” physician — $460. It adds up.

      3. EduDad

        I am in no way saying we have it worse, only that it is difficult here too. I think the US tuitions are totally outrageous and I agree that your health care costs are equally bad. I’m lucky to be Canadian and in a couple of years all this debt will be behind me.

      4. When I did a story years ago about retirement saving and investing and told the expert I was interviewing that I have a Canadian passport she told me it’s the best part of my portfolio as I have another country to return to that won’t bankrupt me with medical greed. I plan to retire to France and Canada, both for the health systems as nations I have emotional ties to.

  11. Hmmm…no education is wasted in college or the University of life…if we ‘learn from the lessons’…including what to invest in and what not to invest in…though I think that is a lesson that is ongoing through our our lifetimes. Travelling, I believe, is/was the best education I ever got but the little pieces of paper are/were easily carried while travelling…

  12. Meanwhile…. Quebec students are busy violently demonstrating (..get this..) the lowest tuition costs in Canada?!? Hmmm….

    As someone who DIDN’T go to college or uni right after school, I feel it’s heavily pushed on to all high school KIDS! That’s right KIDS! By no true right was I an adult at the age of 18, 19 or 21. I felt like I was but now that I can look back, I wasn’t.

    If they want a year off. Give it to them. If they want to travel. Encourage them. Maybe go check out a 2nd or 3rd world country? It’s probably still going to be cheaper then school and a hell of a lot more informative.

    1. I agree.

      I bet the larger issue is that a lot of kids would have no idea how to fill a year or two off. School becomes a default choice because it’s known and safe and offers the illusion of working toward something. Hard to compete with that.

  13. In short, yes, I think it’s important that every country has an excellent tertiary educuation system. I’ve been to ‘uni’ (as we say here in Australia) three times – as in for three degrees – and I loved all of it. It’s true that when you’re a late teenager you really don’t know what you want to do with your life, so I’ve always admired people who take a year or two off before they undertake their first degree. Thankfully – luckily – my degrees were very cheap when I did them, so they were affordable. A lot has changed in Australia over recent years; certainly it’s a minority who can afford to do post-grads. What a university education offers is an opportunity to think broadly, to be exposed to a wide variety of influences, and to be wild – in all meanings of that word – because it’s a challenge to be wild out here in ‘normal’ life. Frankly, I don’t think I’m finished with ‘uni’, and I’m getting dangerously close to my middle age!

  14. I wonder though if you’d have the same affection for school if you were now — as so many grads are — were staggering about with 20-40k+ worth of debt and no job and no prospect of a job even in sight….?

  15. In my case it was worth it. As a writer, I was determined to get my money’s worth out of my professors and picked their brains constantly. They even helped me make professional connections with a nationally renowned novelist and he not only read my work but offered to back me up when I decide to go to grad school.

    Then again, I left with a fraction of the debt most grads have ($24,000). I went to Flagler College and, despite one bogus news report citing tuition at $180,000, it’s very affordable. Financial aid did what it could to give everyone money, and the professors bent over backwards for their students.

    You don’t need to go to Harvard for a great education. Perhaps if schools like my Alma Mater were more frequently publicized, less kids would get into debt.

    I suppose I’m lucky. Beyond lucky. Sad thing is, it’s very hard to get a job without a BA/BS. It’s not impossible. But I could only get a real job after I graduated. I wish the best of luck to the kids who have to drop out because of debt and can’t get the better paying jobs that require a degree.

    1. Glad it worked out so well!

      I agree with you that the emphasis on a “name” school is madness if you don’t enjoy it, do not come out with a usable set of skills and come out burdened with insane debt and can’t get decent work. The inflation of a BA to a bare-bones-get-in-the-door credential is also a reflection, though, on how poorly prepared most students are for the work world — even *with* a degree.

      I worked retail for 27 months and it was always (insultingly) assumed by our snottiest shoppers that none of the staff had a college degree. We all did!

      1. I will say that the American education system needs lots of work, though I’m not sure any one proposed idea is the magic pill to cure its ailments.

        And I understand what it’s like to be looked down upon. I’m a part-time English teacher, but I’ve held a job at a local movie theater for three years (it was my first job and the managers and peers treat me well). Needless to say, customers incorrectly assume much regarding my mental capacity.

      2. It’s quite eye-opening — when one ponders the mythical American meritocracy/social mobility (currently not working well at all anymore) — to work behind a counter in any capacity, esp. over the age of 17 or so. I talk about this with some ferocity in Malled, my memoir of that time. I enjoyed working retail a great deal for a long time, but was completely fed up and burned out by the end of (the worst) customers’ need to speak to us all slowly in words of one syllable. I used to reply in fluent French when necessary. You should have seen their faces…

  16. As a recent graduate what really gets me down is people always giving me what us British call “stick” sort of light abuse say, for doing an English degree, let alone just any degree. “What a waste of time and money, a degree in your mother tongue, you’ll never do anything great going to university, so what’s the point? get a job you lazy bum.” well excuse me for wanting to use my brain? Whatever happened to the love of learning and the human right to education? Yes alright, I have left University doing a job I probably could have done without my degree BUT I broadened my mind, gained a sharp, critical way of thinking, I got to learn more about my passion: Literature. Which meant I read books which changed my life and have been left with a reading list of books that will perhaps still shape and change me as a person. University brought me out of my shell, i became more self confident and open to trying new things. I made friends for life and met someone who I am know getting a house with, and i’m incredibly happer. That is worth everything, that is priceless. Who cares if it cost me over £21,000 of debt? Whatever happened to just wanting to learn and that being acceptable? People, including most who do not go on to higher education, see degrees as a waste of time – and worthless, but surely it depends on the student and what they are doing it for? Yes, higher education is not for everybody and yes, some students are lazy and are a waste of time and of whom, still get degrees which makes the rest of us hardworking students look like our degrees were easy and thus, worthless. We all have a right to education so why penalise and paint every young person with the same brush??

      1. the other contention is that debt is public money – borrowed off the government – which heightens the tension of people going “your spending my money!” x

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