Not a week goes by without hearing more about higher education’s dilemma. Critics point to increasing tuitions and decreasing return on investment, echoing the patterns of rapid expansion and mal-investment that characterized the Subprime Crisis. Opponents of this criticism label this as nothing more than fear-mongering and politicking.
A comparison of the levels of debt held in 2005 and 2012 brings a number of troubling figures to light. In this period, student-debt holders of less than $25,000 decreased 12.6 percent from 82.3 percent to 69.7 percent. Simultaneously the percentage of loan-holders with $10,000-$50,000 increased 9.2 percent, from 38.3 percent to 47.5 percent, and the percentage with more than $50,000 of debt increased from 6.2 percent to 12.6 percent.
This shows that the average family is taking on ever-increasing burdens to finance a higher education at a time when household incomes are at lows not seen since 1996. Between 1980 and 2012, the total cost of attending college for a single year –- tuition, room and board, etc. –- increased by an annualized 5.09%. For the 2011-12 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost for a year of college at a public 4-year institution was $15,918, up from $15,014 for the previous school year (2010-11), and $14,262 the year before that. Average student-debt load for the class of 2013 is at $30,000.
In light of these unprecedented increases, higher education — a cornerstone of American life — now requires a thorough cost-benefit analysis. No longer is a well-paying job after college a foregone conclusion. With the costs of college increasing, what is happening to the benefits?
A fair reflection of the quality of a county’s higher-education system is its employment rate, and a growing body of research demonstrates that recent graduates are not acquiring the skills needed to compete in the modern workforce. Combined with the exponential increase in college costs, graduates are overcharged and underprepared.
Recent reports demonstrate that today’s college graduates are not having an easy time finding work. The low unemployment rate for college graduates — 3.9% at last measure — takes into account all college graduates, and is therefore misleading. Research shows that for 2011 graduates — undergraduate and graduate alike — the unemployment rate is 12.6%. For those with bachelor’s degrees, the rate jumps to 13.5%.
What’s more, despite a modest recovery following the terrible recession, employment has not bounced back in proportion to the economy as a whole. Figures from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development show that as of 2011 the U.S. has the highest “non-employment” rate–which measures those who are either voluntarily or otherwise unemployed–among its global peers for those aged 25-34 (26.2%). Germany, France, and Japan decreased their non-employment rate by an average 1.7% between 2000 and 2011, while the U.S., Canada, and Britain increased their rate by 3.3%.
How do these employment statistics relate to higher-education financing? Unlike other forms of debt, student debt is virtually impossible to discharge through bankruptcy. A report from the New York Federal Reserve shows that the percentage of student-debt holders who have at least one loan 90 days into delinquency–after factoring out those in forbearance, deferment, etc.—has reached 30%. In all, 44% of student debt presently goes unpaid due either to deferment or forbearance. Unpaid debt signifies that for an increasing number of graduates, the means of repayment are not available.
Clearly, college students are investing more in a product that is returning less. The days of attending college with the expectation of landing a good job have fallen by the way. For an economy in transition, our students must be equipped with the skills necessary to thrive outside of academia, and must be so equipped at a more reasonable cost. To do so, a deleveraging of the hold that traditional universities have on those preparing for the workforce must occur. One such path by which this may occur is through online higher education. Through these online portals, students are given the opportunity to gain knowledge in STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), which are important for filling those jobs that so often go unfilled due to lack of qualification. In addition to online learning, the merits of community colleges must be brought to light. For those who perhaps struggled through high school, or for those who simply do not feel called to a profession for which college is a requirement, community colleges offer a great educational opportunity at a small fraction of the price.
This all begs a question that has gained popularity in recent times: Is college worth it? In a word, yes, though this comes with a caveat. While college will pay for itself in the long run nine-times-out-of-ten, and while it is certainly more beneficial than halting one’s education at high school, students must decide whether their professional aspirations are worth the years, and in some cases decades, of struggling to pay off debt. Some academic and professional pursuits will make this an easier endeavor than will others.
If the student is pursuing a dream, then no price tag will be too great to deter him. If, however, the student’s pursuit is more obligatory than passionate, he would do well to think twice.