Matter of Degree

Richard Quinn

YES, EDUCATION IS invaluable. But should young adults go to college to obtain a piece of paper that may mean little in the real world? Is the student debt we hear so much about really worth it? Could pushing college attendance for all be as misguided as pushing homeownership for all?

I’m not against formal education. I put four children through college. In fact, I believe parents are obligated to cover their children’s college costs, assuming they have the financial wherewithal to do so. That doesn’t mean they should pay college costs at the expense of retirement savings—but it may mean delaying the purchase of a new RV. Parents also have a duty to guide their 18-year-old’s college decision. I don’t see a child turning 18 as the signal that parents are done parenting.

I also believe we need to expand how we define education, which—in my view—doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. I learned a great deal about the Second World War from visiting the Normandy Beaches and Auschwitz, and about the Middle East from seeing the living conditions in the West Bank and listening to residents. I learn every day by reading, usually two or three books at a time.

My contention: We need to question why it takes four years—and often more—to get a bachelor’s degree, why college is priced as it is and perhaps how we fund those degrees considered important to society. Clearly, you need a rigorous course of study for a professional degree. But if you aren’t aiming to become, say, a doctor, dentist, architect or lawyer, it strikes me we need an educational system with greater flexibility.

Many European students finish their degrees in three years by focusing on their majors. General education, like writing skills and critical thinking, are learned in high school.

By contrast, in the U.S., many students enter college unprepared and are placed in remedial classes, thereby paying a steep price for basic education that should have been learned long before college. Why are we surprised that, lacking parental guidance, students often burden themselves with unaffordable debt, in part by taking low value courses which could be considered a luxury? Patients who don’t follow the doctor’s instructions, or fail to take medication, get little value for their money. A student not focused on his or her education likewise gets little value from college.

The U.S. ranks just 16th among developed countries in literacy. The statistics on reading skills are shocking and have a direct impact not only on college, but also on our citizens’ ability to function effectively in today’s society.

I question assumptions like higher cost equals higher quality. That a four-year model fits all. That any degree provides value. That having a degree guarantees a better job, more income, better life decisions and greater success—however that’s defined.

And what about the cost of higher education? I randomly picked the University of the Pacific, a private nonprofit school I’ve never heard of. Tuition is $49,688. The full cost is $68,784. But 90% of students receive financial aid and the net cost is about half the sticker price. So what’s the true cost? It’s similar to health care. The billed price is unrelated to the real price.

From 2000 to 2019, the average health care inflation rate was 3.4% annually. College tuition increased at an average inflation rate of 5.14% over the same period. Why do we scream about the former and yet don’t question the latter? Instead of looking at the cost structure of colleges, including the money spent on administration, buildings and so on, we focus only on the debt needed to pay for it.

Rhetoric about student loans looks at symptoms and not causes. Generous loans may even contribute to the high cost and the time spent in school—again, not unlike health care and health insurance. It seems to me that, if college loans are to be made, they need to come with conditions that ensure the money is efficiently and effectively spent, both by the student and the institution.

Following one’s dream is fine. But when it comes to selecting a college major and incurring thousands in debt, there’s a practical aspect as well. The job and income prospects matter. Not all majors are equal. In fact, some are declining in demand.

There are good reasons insurance companies and governments monitor, evaluate and sometimes limit what they pay for health care. Why should college be any different? As with health care, we have been seduced into accepting that cost equals quality and that more is better.

Insurance premiums are not the fundamental problem with health care costs—and student loans are not the fundamental problem with college. In both cases, the issue is what’s charged for what we consume—and the way we consume it.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Lesson UnlearnedMaking It Work and Righting Wrongs. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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Jim Wasserman
Jim Wasserman
3 years ago

Good piece. I absolutely agree. Somehow we came to define educational “success” in one way, a 4 year degree, and that gave enormous power to universities and took away options from parents and students. Many high school districts still define their curriculum as “college prep” as if that is the only goal one should have. Many other countries have a three-tier system that allows students to prep for straight into vocation, vocational school, or university after high school.

I do like the idea of a general liberal arts education, but the cost to wander through great works (even if valuable) is cost prohibitive for most people. I also realize now that many of the great works I was exposed to in college were wasted on me until I had more wisdom and appreciation from getting around in the world.

Mik Barbasol
Mik Barbasol
3 years ago

I suspect the USA spends more per student for education than other countries….if true than why do we keep hearing schools need more
taxpayer funding to raise scores ?

3 years ago

There are many people questioning the high cost of education. A good example of an effort to deal with this problem is New York’s tuition free program for children from middle class families who attend NY public colleges. One indication of the popularity of this program is that small private colleges in NY are having a difficult time meeting enrollment goals.

3 years ago

I took 29 years to finally get my degree and I finally got to used it two weeks ago. For my degree, I had learned the laws of thermodynamics, about the enthalpy of fusion, the refrigeration cycle, and about water chemistry. With all this knowledge, I figured that I could put this knowledge to the test and make a clear ice cube since it is the latest millennial trend. So, I used what I learned from college about how to do research and Google for a YouTube video on how to make clear ice.

For the record, it looks great in a drink, but not worth the hassle. You can also buy special clear ice trays on Amazon. I can explain it to you how and why it works, but in reality, you just care that the ice doesn’t water down your gin and you can see right through the glass.

I earned my college degree as a result of my job. I did not get my job because I had degree, because I didn’t have one back in 1985. But now, college degrees have replaced corporate HR testing to avoid lawsuits. Federal government student loans have given colleges a blank check. In my opinion, in the non-STEM fields, the cost of college is not worth the benefits. A two-year degree or a certification would be more cost effective and faster to do. As technology changes it is easier to get a new certification than another degree.

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