Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What's a college degree worth?

 For years now, my Aggie husband Walker has said, "College education is a complete waste of money." And like any good Longhorn, I would answer, "Well, maybe yours was." Lately, however, more and more evidence has been popping up that supports his theory. 

This afternoon I was listening to Dave Ramsey, and a couple called in who had $84,000 of student loan debt from their private Christian college experience. Dave asked how much their takehome pay was. It was $36,000. Just recently The New York Times published an article supporting the same theory regarding law school.

I have a degree in English. I've yet to 'use' it. But that degree only cost about $8,000. Back in the good old days.

Maybe Walker does actually know what he's talking about. Judge for yourself.

Walker here.  Hope you all are doing well.  It's time for my yearly guest blog.

One of the things that's bugged me for years is the nagging fear that in large part a 4 year college education is a big waste of time.

Full disclosure:  I spent 6 years at Texas A&M, four as an undergraduate, and two years getting my MBA.  While I had a fantastic time there, made lifelong friends, and consider myself one who bleeds maroon, I can't with any confidence state that what I learned there academically really and truly prepared me for "real life".

In all, my parents and I probably spent $40,000 to $50,000 on my total higher education, and even back in the 90's this was a steal.  Nowadays, for some elite, private schools its not uncommon for tuition to run you $40,000+ annually.  Spread this over 4+ years and some kids are graduating with largely irrelevant degrees (when judged by the marketplace) in disciplines like Philosophy and Sociology, then are facing a bleak job market where many are forced to get part-time jobs or employment in fields where their college degree has absolutely no bearing for little pay - basically a job that they could have easily got if they had never went to college to begin with.  Nevertheless, six months after they graduate, they are expected to start paying off those $100K + student loans.

To me, this smells like a rip off.

No some folks may say, "Hold it!  What about the atmosphere of learning?  Of students sharing knowledge and insights together on the ol' quad?  You can't put a price tag on that!"  Well, phooey, I say. 

During my years in the esteemed halls of knowledge, an estimated 99.6% of my time was spent talking about chicks, playing Frisbee golf, watching TV, playing computer games like Tecmo Bowl, trying to talk to chicks, drinking beer, and finally, taking huge, endless naps...dreaming about chicks.  It wasn't like I was livin' the Socratic Method over there or anything.  The intellectual stimulation I received on any given day could have been garnered, for the price of a cup of joe, at our favorite coffee house, Sweet Eugene's

You don't have to go to college for that "college experience".

I studied business.  Now I sell computers.  Not once I have ever had to bust out the old HP Business Calculator.  I have never had to calculate the time value of money or make a debit entry for cost accounting.

So why did I go to college?

Now studies are sort of bearing me out.   I have also worried about a so-called "education bubble", a phenomena largely fueled by easy, federal grants and loans, that essentially allow any American to go to college.  More and more Americans are going to college, not necessarily graduating, but are also incurring mountains of debt.  How angry would you be if you borrowed tens of thousands of dollars on the vague promise to getting a good job eventually only to be working as a barrista, as your worthless diploma collects dust on your mom's living room wall? 

I would be pretty ticked off.

And with the massively disruptive nature of the Internet, and how technological advances have completely turned entire industries on their head like publishing and media, you have to wonder if the truly old-school, brick and mortar, 4 year college experience is in serious need of an overhaul.

Couldn't a lot of this be done - just as well and far cheaper - online?  Why is it that we place to an premium on having kids go to college?  Couldn't many youngsters be better served with robust, vocational alternatives where they actually learn vital skills and crafts, things that are actually in demand in the marketplace?

Why do we (and the government) spend so much money propping up thousands of universities, colleges, and community colleges?  Is it just because education is "important" and we always have? 

I want my own kids to go to college.  Sure. My nostalgic reflections cause me to want my kids to enjoy the "college experience." But I also want them to learn something important and be prepared to work in an in-demand field. 

I am not convinced that the college experience as currently defined is necessarily the best choice, especially if they (or I) am saddled with $100K in debt from said experience.  Instead of spending this $100K (and growing) on college, what about using it for them to take some vocational training, backpack through Europe, and put a down-payment on a house or use it for start-up monies for a business?

Would that be a better return on investment, Dr. Business Professor??



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