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Even Professors Are Doubting the Value of College

For years, conventional wisdom has held that if you want to get a good job you go to college immediately after high school. Maybe you should even earn an advanced degree to increase your appeal to employers. In the face of rising tuition costs and debt and a stagnant economy, though, that line of thinking may not hold as true as it once did, causing at least one professor to now question whether college is even a worthwhile decision.

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By Eric Garneau

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The Declining Value of an Education

In a November 1, 2011 editorial for The Chronicle of Higher Education, graduate school professor Frank Donoghue poses a startlingly bold question to readers: is college worth it? Unemployment for recent graduates is as high as it's ever been, and tuition costs rise significantly faster than the cost of living. With students now largely unable to pay off the debt they take on to put themselves through school in the first place, Donoghue reaches an upsetting conclusion: 'as for high-school graduates right now, I think college is a bad bet.' Charitably, he gives an exception to students who possess 'independently wealthy parents or some other guaranteed lifetime-income stream.'

Donoghue also considers an exception that his readers might find more practical: low-cost 2-year community college programs aimed solely at securing students a job upon graduation. Donoghue calls such programs 'practical;' students can make use of their minimal costs and maximum job placement results.

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Who Benefits, and How?

Is Professor Donoghue right? Is college a bad investment? In part that depends on what you want out of the experience. If you're using college solely as a means to secure a future career, Donoghue may have a point. At the very least, college is no guarantee of a job anymore; the professor reports that unemployment for degreed job-seekers sits at five percent or greater; however, it should be noted that that's only about half the general unemployment rate, officially 9.2%.

Then there's the question of whether college is really only valuable inasmuch as it prepares graduates for a career. While some certainly feel that way, others argue that college is more about the experience afforded. To those individuals, the real value of a college education can be found in the critical thinking and multicultural understanding fostered through a diverse liberal arts education; it's personal, not vocational, development those people are after. Of course, for cash-strapped students and their parents, such a vague notion may not hold much appeal.

Silver Lining

College's worth, then, seems to depend not only on what you want out of it, but what you're able to put into it financially. The best lesson to take away from Donoghue's editorial is that now, more than ever before, a college education does not guarantee any fiscal success, so if you think a college degree is your last, best hope at getting rich, you might want to look elsewhere. If, however, you want to expand your academic and personal horizons and dive into learning about subjects that interest you, college is still a fine, even excellent, choice… so long as you can afford it.

And maybe Donoghue's taking too narrow a view of what it means to get a college education. Certainly tuition at traditional universities sits up in the stratosphere, but what about nontraditional paths to earning a degree? With the growing OpenCourseWare movement, cheap alternatives to college credit like CLEP tests and even signs that perhaps credentialing for free online courses will be coming over the horizon, cash-strapped students may soon be able to construct a much cheaper path to earning a legitimate college degree. While that may not help those who want the experience of college, the fact is that degrees still grant some advantage in the job search, and acquiring that advantage for less money could be a big help to many lifelong learners.

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