The Practical Value of a College Education

by Howard and Matthew Greene

In a never ending upward spiral, college tuitions have risen again this year, making the great majority of families wonder if the pain and sacrifice of paying for a child's education is worthwhile. Public colleges and universities have raised their tuition by an average of 10% this year, while private colleges have increased theirs by a 6% average. Although our institutions of higher learning attempt to justify these increases by pointing to the weak economy and declining income from state coffers and their endowments, middle and lower income families are left to wonder if they can afford to fulfill their dream of sending their children off to college.

Leaving aside the intangible benefits of attending college — the intellectual exposure, the social maturity gained, the lifelong friendships made — a college degree has significant job security and income advantages, especially in a weak and uncertain economy. The National Bureau of Labor Statistics reported recently that jobs increased for college graduates and declined for less educated workers from June of 2001 to 2002. Some 1.1 million new jobs opened up to college graduates at the same time that 2 million jobs disappeared for non-college graduates. The unemployment rate among college graduates has averaged a mere 2.9% compared to the national average of 5.9%.

Further evidence of the growing distance between those who have a college degree and those who do not is the difference in earning power. The Bureau reports that employees with a Bachelor's degree earned an average of $50,000 annually. This compares to high school graduates who earned an average of $27,000. Recent conversations with corporate managers on our part confirm the fact that young adults who have earned a college degree, and still better, the more prestigious the institution that degree represents, the more likely they are to be hired and retained in such a competitive climate. Those graduates with a technical education in engineering or computer science and information technology will enjoy an even greater advantage.

Does a college degree actually justify the growing differential between the haves and have-nots in terms of their education? The answer is a resounding yes according to employers in virtually all kinds of business enterprises. As business activity becomes more complex and specialized, individuals with strong communication and creative and problem solving skills are more essential than ever before. The global economy that was once a notion is now a powerful reality, creating an intensely competitive international marketplace for goods and services. College educated employees are more likely to have an awareness of other countries and their culture and language

We have written frequently of our concern for the rising costs of attaining a college education and the attendant rise in the debt students and their families are incurring. The average debt load of college graduates who have received financial aid from their respective colleges now stands at $18,000. Thus it is vital that families shop widely before committing to any one college or university. We continue to encourage any motivated high school graduate to consider fulfilling their dream of attending college. At the same time that tuitions continue their inexorable climb, financial assistance in the form of grants and loans from the federal government and individual colleges has grown by 10%. According to the College Board, only 8% of all college students actually pay the full tuition charged by public and private institutions. Knowledge wins the day, is the obvious conclusion to preparing for a more certain future in an uncertain world.