The Complicated Question of College

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By Angela Switzer 

Until this past summer, my son was not interested in going to college.

“What’s the point?” he demanded several months ago, when his classmates were all visiting schools over spring break. “If I don’t know what I want to study, why should I go?” He continued, “Even graduates with degrees are unemployed.”

Philosophically, I mused, these were interesting questions. But my gut was having a hard time with the attitude.

Looking for some answers, I read William Bennett’s “Is College Worth It?” which is a captivating book that explores the shortcomings of today’s university system, questioning whether students today receive half the education those graduating 30 years ago did.

Okay, I thought, with price tags for college skyrocketing, and student loans topping $1 trillion in this country, have the scales tipped in the financial argument for attending college? Especially if he is only going to boomerang back home in a few short years buried in student loans.

It is a tricky question—and certainly one that has more complicated answers than it did even 20 years ago, when a college degree more closely aligned with job prospects and upward mobility. Even so, in spite of heralded stories about breakout 19-year-old entrepreneurs, most of the job market continues to reveal a serious wage gap between those with a college degree and those with only a high school diploma.

A recent study by the Pew Research Center provides compelling data why your child should pursue a college degree; namely, college graduates working full-time earn an average $17,500 more annually than their peers with only a high school diploma. They are also less likely to be unemployed—by a large margin, 3.8 percent versus 12.2 percent.

Moreover, the numbers underscore that college tuition is an investment that pays off over the long, and even short and medium, run—both financially and emotionally. The Pew Research study shows that college graduates are happy with their decision to attain their degree, even with the added financial burden of student loans. 

The Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., also supports this view, with a study concerning recent graduates in the face of a weak economy. College enrollment has dropped substantially since 2012, primarily due to the rising costs. But this enrollment drop, the study indicates, simply intensifies the demand on dwindling “supply” of college graduates—and provides competitive edges to those with degrees.

Yet, after all of this reading and thinking, miraculously, I didn’t even have to give my pro-college spiel to my 18-year -old. No, he decided on his own. On a recent family trip to Portland, we discussed taking a look at Portland State University and, surprisingly, he was game for a campus tour.  The enthusiastic young man showing us around sparked a definite interest, while the literature confirmed a path for studying Graphic Arts as a major (one of his passions). The visit itself was the collegiate catalyst. Just being there in the midst of the city, among the students, and imagining himself as part of something new and exciting set the wheels in motion. For now he is buried in a flurry of applications, last minute campus visits and his eye on a meal plan.

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