I've caught up on reading Bearing's series on post-secondary education, and having done so I'm eager to start formulating some thoughts on the topic in general and on Mark's guest post "Why College Is a Bad Deal for America" in particular. I feel the need to sidle up to the topic and lay some groundwork, not just because I'm too short on time (trying to finish the novel, as I should be doing right now) to write a single exhaustive post, but also because I'm aware that this is a topic on which I have strong feelings influenced by my own history and the limited data set that personal experience provides.
Let me start by outlining my own personal background on the topic. I've written in the past about my own progress from a Classics degree to working in Marketing (and now, Finance -- pricing is one of those disciplines that can end up on either side of the divide.) What may or may not come through from that is the extent to which my personal pride ended up becoming wrapped up in proving that I could "make it" as a provider despite having a humanities rather than a technical degree. Many of the guys I hung out with socially in college were in business or computer science, and so I got a lot of "now you'll know how to say 'would you like fries with that?' in Latin!" ribbing. It was good natured enough, but I had (and have) more than my fair share of pride, and it tended to make me angry. Thus in addition to the need to provide for a family right out of college (MrsD and I married at 22, had our first child at 23 and our second at 24) I had a strong personal determination to prove that in the long run I could make as much or more than people who'd gone into fields like business, engineering and computer science.
So when I hear someone arguing that getting a college degree in general, or a non-career-oriented college degree in particular, is a bad investment, my first reaction is an entirely emotional competitive urge to respond, "Oh yeah? Can you match this?"
Secondly, my personal experience is very much formed around corporate office environments (in marketing and finance) where college degrees are almost a must. Yeah, sure, there are the famous college drop outs like Michael Dell and Bill Gates, but the companies those men founded employ almost exclusively college graduates when it comes to well paid salaried jobs. (If anything, I'm on the anti-credential side of the corporate spectrum, since I'm one of those who considers MBAs mostly useless degrees.) So when I look around me at the type of success that I'm most familiar with, purposely not going to college seems like a bad idea, because it mostly locks you out. (There are exceptions, but it's tough.)
Alright, so with those preliminaries out of the way, so that people will understand where I'm coming from and be able to contextualize what I'm saying accordingly, the approach I'd like to take is to lay out some thoughts in broad outline, and then delve into those points individually in further posts. Since these points are necessarily brief, I'll number them for easy reference in discussion. The ordering means nothing in particular.
1) I think that people are right to be concerned with the rapidly escalating cost of college education (undergraduate and graduate) and with the extent of student debt that people are getting into in order to finance their educations.
2) A great many people go to college believing that college guarantees them a job, or even a "good job". In our current economy, this is clearly not the case. Even people with degrees that are very job focused are having more difficulty getting jobs right now, and for those with less job focused degrees, things are even harder. That said, if things are hard for college graduates, they are even harder for people without college degrees and hardest of all for those without even high school degrees.
3) While one can argue that this maybe shouldn't be the case, a four year college degree is generally considered to be the minimum threshold for being a "well educated person" in our society at this time. As such, if you don't have a college degree, you're going to end up having to answer the question "why not?" to one extent or another (clearly, this will vary depending on your professional field and social milieu) and you will have to deal with people's unspoken assumptions based on your lack of degree.
3) All of that said: College is not a good deal for everyone. People who go to college but don't finish end up with debt and lost time, but don't have appreciably higher income or lower unemployment than those with only high school degrees. (Whether they learned and grew a lot is, of course, another matter, but I'd assume that dropping out isn't a great sign in that regard.) Further, some of the data out of the Academically Adrift studies suggests that among those who finish to college, unemployment is three times higher (and pretty similar to the rate for those with just a high school diploma) for those in the bottom 20% of academic ability as compared to those in the top 20% of academic ability.
4) On the other hand, we have a strong tendency to take a finding about society in general "college is a bad deal for some people" and apply it to each individual person regardless of circumstances. I'd argue that someone who has a lot of academic ability, and a strong desire to pursue a four year degree in some field, should not be dissuaded with the general observation, "College is a bad deal for some people." It's people who excel at and appreciate academic study who will get the most out of college both personally and professionally. Further, given that your children are more likely than the average member of the population to be like you (both as a matter of nature and nurture) while you shouldn't unduly pressure your children to follow your path, you probably also shouldn't assume that they should look like the general population. So if you and your spouse are both college graduates who did well in college and have gone on to successful careers, don't look at the overall population and say, "Well, 40% of people are graduating from college now, and many of them aren't doing so well, so probably most of my kids shouldn't go to college." If your kids are like you in ability and inclination, urging them to skip the college degree they want and get a certification in some skill like plumbing or welding instead is probably not a good a idea. (If they want to pursue one of those fields rather than college, that's a whole other situation.)
5) I think it's important to come to a broader understanding of the "liberal arts" as those arts and sciences appropriate to a free person. This means encouraging "liberal arts types" to study a bit of more hard-edged topics, and also making sure not to relegate more technical subjects strictly to training as opposed to education.
6) While I'm sympathetic to the search for "third ways", part of what made college such a valuable experience for me was living for four years with other people who where also studying academic subjects in depth, and the "community of scholars" feeling that creates. Goodness knows, it was imperfect, but I had a fairly intensive liberal arts education in high school and I've tried to do a fair amount of self teaching since, and I don't think either one is remotely comparable to the college experience.
7) While I'm a very big advocate of people getting an undergraduate college degree if they have the ability and inclination, I think people should very carefully weigh whether going to grad school is something really ought to do. It's often very expensive. If your hope is to get into academia professionally, it's an incredible career longshot. If you are doing it for more general professional advancement or benefit, I think you need to think hard whether the time and cost is going to have a sufficient return on investment. And if you're doing it because you don't know what else to do (or because it's just fun) I think you need to be very hesitant unless you can pull it off without incurring debt. Borrowing tens of thousands of dollars is a bad way to avoid making decisions.