Congratulations, College Graduates! But Did You Just Waste Your Money, and Four Years of Your Lives?

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There seems to be no stopping the argument that college is overpriced, overvalued, and not particularly good at preparing students for their lives after being kicked out of the dorms. Upon hearing some of the factoids gathered by higher education bashers—like that the cost of college has increased tenfold over the past 30 years, compared a mere sixfold increase for health care—it gets harder and harder to keep up the counterargument that today’s college degrees are still worth every penny.

Just about every student, would-be student, and parent who hopes to one day send a child off as a college student nods in agreement when someone says, “College is too damn expensive.” In a recent survey, 57% of respondents said college is not a good value for the money, and three-quarters said higher education is too expensive for most students to afford. And yet, no matter if college costs a pretty penny, 94% of parents said they expect their children to go to college.

So that’s one—and probably the biggest—reason why college isn’t going to become more affordable any time soon: People keep paying.

And, by most indications, it looks like people will continue paying. An LA Times story points out that, despite uncertainty in the stock market, contributions to 529 plans (government-sponsored college-savings programs) have soared while the economy has bounced after the recession. Some $9 billion was invested in these plans last year, compared to $5.1 billion in 2008. If the trend (and economic growth) continues, 529 contributions will soon be back at 2006 levels ($13.9 billion). And what’s driving the renewed dedication to college-savings plans is mostly the fear among parents that four-year degrees, while expensive now, will be even more out-of-reach when the time comes for their kids to attend. The LA Times provides some statistics:

College costs continue to rise faster than overall inflation. Over the last five years, fees have swelled an average of 5.2% a year at private schools and 5.9% at public institutions, according to College Board data. In the same period, consumer prices have risen about 2% a year.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reports that colleges are increasingly resorting to bidding wars, waving more and more merit aid to attract the brightest students:

The average student at a private college last year reaped a 42 percent discount on the published tuition, according to an industry survey, a historic high. Admission experts say more colleges use merit awards to lure strong students who might not otherwise attend, including those who could afford to pay full price.

Considering the hefty tuition discounts many students get, perhaps real world college costs haven’t risen quite as steeply as some of the data indicates. But here’s another way to look at these stats: Merit aid wouldn’t sway a student unless the alternative (a better school, but at full price) was viewed as a better overall value. If money wasn’t a factor, every student would simply pick the best school, regardless of tuition costs or merit aid. But money is a factor, of course, and it’s only becoming more so.

Nonetheless, elite (read: pricey) colleges saw a rise in applications this year. So they must be worth the money, right? In The New Yorker, Louis Menand jumps into the college value debate while riffing on a couple of the new books addressing the topic. First, some big questions: What is college, and why does it exist? Menand writes:

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types.

This is all true, an apt way of putting it. But considering that it’s not unusual for a college education to cost $200,000 nowadays, that’s a pretty pricey intelligence test.

Menand also makes the case that college, however indirectly, ultimately helps people to lead more successful, more aware, and happier lives:

College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

Nice thought, and hopefully much of what a student learns in college is enlightening and empowering. But when you look at the costs—currently absurd and rising—I’m again reminded of the wisdom of Frank Zappa, who once said:

“If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library.”

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