Is college a good investment?

It won’t be long before high school seniors will have to send a check to the college that accepted them for the fall.  Before they do so, I think it’s important to ask if committing to four years of education today is worthwhile (“Why an Honors Student Wants to Skip College and Go to Trade School,” The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 6).

I know the argument about the wage premium attached to a bachelor’s degree.  But I question if data supporting that view are still relevant.  There was a time when a small percentage of the population had a college degree.  In those days, therefore, it mattered little what students majored in.  The mere fact that they had a degree made them exceptional in the eyes of most employers.  But today college degrees lack the same value.  That’s why one’s major means more than ever in terms of getting a job in line with one’s education. I’m not even talking about paying off student loans.  That’s another huge consideration.

But there’s a further factor given too little consideration.  If going to college is seen as more than just a credentialing post, then what about its value in teaching students to engage in critical thinking?  With the exception of a handful of colleges and universities, free inquiry and free speech are anachronisms.  For example, the treatment of Charles Murray by students at Middlebury College shows that there is an atmosphere of enforced orthodoxy.  In Academically Adrift (The University of Chicago Press, 2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that some 45 percent of college students showed no significant improvement after two years of college, and 36 percent did not improve after four years in their critical thinking skills.

Students are being shortchanged when they are not held accountable for behavior that stifles ideas they don’t agree with.  I wonder what is going to happen to them when they enter the workplace, where not everyone shares their views?  That’s something to ponder before deciding to go to college.  The so-called signaling power of a degree will also diminish as employers realize that its possession does not mean what it used to.  In fact, I see a reversal of Gresham’s Law at play.  Marquee-name schools will drive out whatever value is associated with third-tier schools.






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