Overton: College is still worth it

BY JON OVERTON | JULY 31, 2013 5:00 AM

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We’ve all heard the stories. Young person goes to college, graduates with thousands of dollars in debt, can’t get her or his desired job, gets stuck working at a fast-food joint, and moves back in with mom and dad.

Stories such as that lead many to question whether a college education is still worthwhile. This attitude appears almost wherever you look: the general public, the media, concerned parents, college students, and even in the pages of this newspaper.

I agree that the ludicrous cost of higher education is indefensible and that state governments and public universities are failing to control exploding costs, burdening students and their families, with huge implications for equal opportunity and economic prosperity.

It is certainly concerning that recent graduates with degrees in social sciences, the arts, computers, and humanities have unemployment rates as high as nearly 15 percent, according to a report released in May by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

These are serious problems, but we are losing sight of the big picture. In focusing on little subsets of people who are in trouble, it seems that we’ve forgotten how beneficial a college education is.

College graduates overwhelmingly believe higher education is a good investment — 86 percent of them, compared to 40 percent of the public, according to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported in June that 44 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed (e.g., an English B.A. working as a cashier). That sounds pretty gosh darn awful. Except it isn’t. The numbers were slightly worse in the early ’90s. This is nothing abnormal.

The job market is tough for many people right now, so why should it be any different for those with relatively little work experience, fresh off the boat from the joy-filled wonderland that is college? It simply takes time to enter your intended career. Regardless of their majors, college graduates, in the long run, tend to be financially better off than those who only have a high-school diploma.

The Pew report estimated that when accounting for expenses related to obtaining a four-year degree from an in-state public university, the payoff typically totals about $550,000 in earnings over a lifetime.

A press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the unemployment rate for people age 25 and over with a bachelor’s degree was 3.9 percent in June; for those with only a high-school diploma, the rate was 7.6 percent.

In all the fuss over whether colleges are preparing students for the workforce and whether or not a degree is worthwhile, we tend to forget that college isn’t only about money.

A university education is about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, discovering that you love a weird new field of study you never knew existed, meeting people from Angola to Japan, expanding your worldview, exposing yourself to new experiences, and figuring out what you want to do with your life.

You’d be hard pressed to get all of that from a two-week tour of Europe or a library or a trip to the opera.

In spite of its flaws, a four-year college degree is a sound investment, both economically and intellectually. Universities have their problems, especially their burdensome price tags, but hysteria about whether a college education is still worthwhile is pure nonsense.

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