The Cost of College: Is It Worth It?
Americans now owe a staggering $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, according to Forbes. With growing online opportunities catered to self-taught learners and the ever-evolving digital nature of work in the modern world, do we still need to sit in classrooms to get a college education? Are companies and government institutions rethinking the long-standing requirement of a four-year degree for new hires? Or are we overestimating new forms of unconventional education? Leaders of higher ed — from private and public universities and community colleges — weigh in on some of the biggest questions facing American families today.
- 2019 Festival
Once held up as a microcosm of American values and aspiration, colleges and universities in the United States are now facing a crisis of public opinion. Trust in institutions of higher education has plummeted in recent decades, says Joshua Wyner, panel moderator executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. What precipitated this erosion? Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, weighs in:
The most common line of attack against colleges and universities today is that the value simply doesn’t outweigh the cost. Rising tuition fees and staggering student debt don’t lead to a substantially better life, goes the argument. Angel Cabrera, president of George Mason University, and Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, want you to understand that the numbers don’t lie:
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity
Ángel Cabrera: Questions about cost are real. But questions about value are not even contested by anybody. There’s no one showing any kind of data that it's not necessary to get a college degree. To me, the key question, and what I work on with our community colleges, is actually how to remove barriers so that more people can get a college degree, not fewer.
Juan Salgado: Can I just double down on this? This is really important, because at the height of the Great Recession the unemployment rate for people with bachelor’s degrees never went above four percent. So to say that a college degree doesn’t matter is incredibly disingenuous, especially with our students… We can’t afford for that narrative to creep into any part of society, much less the lowest income parts of society.
Yes, some colleges and universities have a hefty price tag. But Salgado and Cabrera say the value of a bachelor’s degree is unequivocal for most.
Education for education's sake fits in amongst the highest ideals of Western society, but is it an archaic aspiration? With more students graduating with debt and skilled jobs becoming more competitive, are colleges and universities at risk of becoming irrelevant if they don’t prepare their graduates for gainful employment? Angel Cabrera says that’s a false dichotomy:
Online colleges offer a lot of promise — lower tuition, flexible hours, innovative learning environments. Recent decades have seen college degrees from online programs explode in popularity, especially for non-traditional students.
By the numbers
But do online degrees offer the same outcomes as traditional college degrees, and are they right for everyone? What about the crucial socialization that can happen during undergraduate years? Angel Cabrera and Janet Napolitano give their takes: