Q&A Friday #104: What About The “Higher Education Bubble?” Should Kids Go To College?

Question: I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what is being referred to as the ‘higher education bubble’? Any advice to younger people in light of such a bubble. — Martin Hale

Answer: This is a complex question to answer.

First off, yes, there is a “higher education bubble.” A college education in this country has become very overpriced in the last thirty years,

College has gotten a lot more expensive. A recent Money magazine report notes: “After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982. … Normal supply and demand can’t begin to explain cost increases of this magnitude.”

So, does that mean it makes no sense to pile on debt to go to college? Well, no, actually it still makes economic sense over the course of a lifetime to get a degree. That’s because on average, someone with a bachelor’s degree makes almost $400 more per week than someone who just has a high school diploma (Yes, the numbers change depending on the source, but there is widespread agreement that over the long haul, college makes economic sense.)

If that’s the case, then where’s the bubble?

Well, unless you’re going to an elite school like Harvard or alternately are going to a school to take a particular course of study that they’re national renowned for, it doesn’t make much difference where you go. In other words, to most employers, East Carolina University =’s Chicago State =’s Goathorn Community College. If you have your degree, you have your degree; so it makes sense to go cheap.

That’s doubly true if you’re not going to major in something that’s particularly marketable. Seriously, are you going to go $100,000 in debt at some private school just so you can come out with a degree in philosophy or African-American studies? You might as well get a degree in basket weaving.

Let me also add that despite all the hype, the education you get in college is over-rated. In any given four years of blogging and reading, I’ve learned considerably more than I did in four years of college. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything or that it was valueless, but the newly graduating college students I run across are almost inevitably under-prepared for the “real world.” That’s not a knock on college students; it’s just how it is. College is a sheltered environment and students should be aware that even after they graduate, they’re still going to be “newbs” at the game of adult life.

That being said, sheltered or not, college does help you prepare for what’s to come. On a personal note, I grew up in a small town called Stoneville, NC. It had one stoplight and a population of 1,000 people. From there, I went to UNC-Charlotte, a school attended by roughly 20,000 people my age. For the first time, I was away from my parents, I had to do my own laundry, and make my own meals. I met people from not just across the country, but across the world. In fact, I had a British roommate one semester and I dated a girl from Japan. So, even in a protected environment like college, you still get to have a lot of new experiences that will help you grow as a human being. Plus, let’s face it: College is a lot of fun. My last couple of years, I managed to pack a full course load into just Tuesday and Thursday. In other words, I had 4-day week-ends every week and still had time to study — when I took a notion.

So, should students go to college? In most cases, yes, although the average student would be better off going to the cheapest college he can find.

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