Why a College Degree May Not Be Worth It

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett explains why a college degree may not be worth the cost.


More Americans are going to college than ever before. Many graduates, however, are buried in debt with few job prospects. In "Is College Worth It? A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education" conservative pundit William Bennett weighs the relevance of a four-year degree against rising tuition costs. The Reagan administration official recently spoke with U.S. News about what prospective students should be thinking about, what they get for their buck and why a bachelor's degree is no longer synonymous with success. Excerpts:

Should Americans keep sending their kids to college?

Sometimes. But they shouldn't automatically or reflexively send their kids to college. They should pause and stop and think. It's not like deciding to have breakfast or go to bed. It's more like, say, to get married. It's a big decision. [There are] a lot of consequences, a lot of costs, a lot of ups and downs. Investigate it with your eyes open.

How does someone know if college is the right choice?

First, look internally. Why do you want to go? Is it just because everyone else is going? That's not a good enough reason. Is it because that's where the good parties are? That's not a good enough reason. To get away from the folks? That's not a good enough reason. What's your academic interest? How well does the school address that? What will you owe when you finish? What will your job prospects be?

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

What is different today about college than in years past?

First of all, a lot more people are going. But, oddly, a lot more of the public has questions about whether it's worthwhile to go. In 2008, 81 percent of adults thought college was a worthwhile investment. This year, 57 percent think so. The second thing, of course, is loan shock.

Why is college so expensive?

There are three main reasons. One is a lot of families, out of the goodness of their hearts and love of their children, will pay anything to send their kids to college. Two, many colleges will try to get as much money as they can. Three, the federal government endlessly subsidizes the increases in college and higher education. And so the price keeps getting higher. There's an academic arms race.

What are the most unnecessary costs at colleges and universities?

We have some great examples in the book, where if you look at places like High Point University, they're talking about things like climbing walls, gourmet restaurants, room service and hot tubs. If you're borrowing money, paying your own way, or maybe if you have a job, you can go to the Comfort Inn of dormitories. You don't have to go the Ritz-Carlton.

[Check out the U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings.]

Can the situation be improved?

Yes, I do think there's a way this situation can be improved. One, we have to become aware of it. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. It's the 30th anniversary of "A Nation at Risk," that famous report about American high schools. We haven't had this conversation about colleges and universities. We need to have it. We hope this book initiates it in earnest.

What are students and their parents getting for their buck?

We actually point out in the book exactly what they're getting for their buck. We have charts on their return on investment, which will be, I think, a matter of some controversy where we use information gathered and put together by others. So, you can measure it in terms of actual dollars. The other thing I'd say is that when we talked to managers and employers, only 16 percent said the people they hire are ready for the workforce.

Is a four-year degree needed to succeed?

No. There's a statistic we cite in the book that by the year 2018 there will be 14 million jobs available, well-paying jobs, which will require more than a high school diploma but less than a college diploma. Right now, a graduate of a community college, which is a two-year college, on average, makes more than a graduate of a four-year college.