Is college worth the investment?
The college degree payback may be long and may not materialize for decades. A six-figure education may not be a guarantee to higher real wages in the near future and it may not be worth going into debt to finance it.
I’m not alone in this sentiment. A widespread public skepticism is fueled by poor short-term job prospects. It’s not surprising that 57 percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center said that higher education doesn’t provide a good value and 75 percent said it’s just too expensive for most people.
As young people attempt to enter the workforce and face an unemployment rate twice that of the majority of the general population, you have to take pause and examine what’s happened to create this bleak situation.
After World War Two, employment was plentiful. People who wanted a decent job in manufacturing or the white-collar sector could find one and stay there for 30 years. About one-third of private-sector workers were guaranteed union benefits, healthcare (even in retirement) and defined-benefit pensions. Productivity was on the rise and consumers drove the economy because they had plenty of disposable income and little debt.
That era, called the “Great Prosperity” by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, ended in roughly 1977. Over the past 30 years, collective bargaining, decent manufacturing jobs and guaranteed benefits began to disappear. I remember that time because I was just getting out of college in the middle of a nasty recession and took a low-paying job myself.
Because high-paying manufacturing jobs were offshored over the past generation, workforce preparation increasingly focused on services and the white-collar sector. While office-oriented employers mostly demanded workers have college degrees, there were no extra payments for overtime. Guaranteed pensions were thrown into the maw of the stock and bond markets in the form of 401(k)s. Healthcare was also eroded.
Real wages, that is, what you earned after you subtracted inflation and taxes, entered a freefall in the past two decades. “Rather than be out of work, most Americans quietly settled for lower real wages,” Reich recently told Congress, “or wages that have risen more slowly than the overall growth of the economy per person.”
That brings us back to the value of a college degree. If the price of college had tracked real wages, net job growth or just inflation, then college tuition should have fallen dramatically in recent years relative to the outgoing economic tide of the middle class.
Yet the depletion of household wealth and earnings in recent years has made the gap between college bills and incomes even wider. While consumer inflation has soared some 107 percent since 1986 (through late 2010), college tuition has ballooned 467 percent.
Why the huge disparity between consumer prices and higher education bills?
Colleges benefited from a huge influx of students — the children of baby boomers — so they didn’t see their enrollment numbers decline significantly. The opposite was true; leading them to believe that there was a robust demand for their services. Universities kept investing in bricks and mortar and hiring professors while raising their prices to pay for it all. At the same time, states dialed back on their funding for public universities.
Then the catastrophic meltdown of 2008 skewered the economics of paying for college. Those who lost home equity had less collateral for home-equity loans or cash-outs. Bond returns were dismal and stocks had a bum decade.
Responding to this massive wealth evaporation, roughly about the time the U.S. housing market (and then stock market) collapsed, private non-profit colleges started a wave of tuition discounting, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
Discounting reached an all-time high of 42 percent last year, the group reported, with 88 percent of freshmen receiving institutional grants. I expect this trend to continue as more and more families pull out of four-year colleges.
In the interim, if more students attend community colleges, eschew loans and encourage their children to take advanced-placement courses in high school — and demand tuition discounts — the paradigm will continue to shift and prices for bachelor’s degrees will fall across the board.
When the bubble bursts, though, it won’t be for the expectations that Americans have for their children after college. After all, even the Pew study shows that college graduates will likely have a $20,000 annual earning advantage over high-school grads.
A college education is a value relative to future earnings, vocational success and its ability to lift you above the economic burdens of underemployment and stagnant earnings. Right now, that equation just doesn’t measure up for most families.