College is still worth it—most of the time.
Many different people attend many different colleges, studying various subjects and paying a wide range of prices. Of course, there will be some students among those millions for whom college is a bad deal, financially speaking. Students paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend for-profit colleges that provide low-value degrees, for example. That's why the U.S. Department of Education cracked down on abusive career colleges earlier this year. Borrowing $200,000 to get a bachelor's in semiotics from a second-rate liberal arts college is also probably a bad idea. People make choices and not all of them will be good ones.
But the long-term trends are clear: over the last 30 years, the American economy has reorganized itself in a way that puts a premium on postsecondary skills. Despite the fact that a larger percentage of people go to college now, the college wage premium relative to people with just a high school diploma is at an all-time high. College graduates are much less likely to have lost their jobs in the current recession. People need to go to college in order to have a fighting chance at a well-paying career. That's not going to change.
It's true, however, that the number of people getting a raw deal from college is rising. That's because college prices are rising uncontrollably. At the same time, studies like Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift suggest that many college students aren't learning very much. Public policymakers need to do to more to restrain college prices and hold colleges accountable for student learning.
College is still a good deal, on average, for most students. But it could be a better deal for more people, and needs to be for America to remain competitive in the 21st century.
About Kevin Carey Policy Director of Education Sector
Naomi Schaefer Riley Author of 'The Faculty Lounges ... And Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For'
Robert B. Schwartz Francis Keppel Professor of Practice in Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard University