Recently there has been a lot of talk about the cost of higher education in the U.S. and whether it is still worth the money. Some young adults actually regret their degrees, and wish they hadn’t gone to college. They argue that although they might be broke and unemployed, they would most certainly not be trapped by student loan debt.
An interesting question therefore arises. Is a college education meant for people from well-to-do families who can afford to pay for it? From a historical perspective, I would like to support this view. Still, I will add what I think the rest of us (non-Rich folks) should do about it. This article is not about whether or not you should go to college, that decision will be based on various factors. However if you’re considering it, this is something you should know.
A Brief History
If you look at Historical Fiction such as Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and the works of Catherine Cookson, you’ll see that in the olden days most people did not go to college. These books illustrate the initial purposes of universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. People attended college in those days to learn things that were not useful in the “real world”, such as Latin (the world language which nobody speaks) and Philosophy. For most people, going to work or serving in an apprenticeship to learn a trade was the norm.
Very few career paths back then benefited from the sort of abstract, theoretical knowledge taught in universities, and almost none of them required it. The few that did (e.g. Law) still required a few years of apprenticeship before a person could practice on his/her own.
Unlike students, apprentices received a wage. Only if your family had money did you forego that income and go off to a university. Remember that there were no student loans, and you couldn’t work while in school like we do now. Back then, people did not believe that everyone should go to college this allowed many people to make the best of life without it. Those who did not go to college began to work in the economy and the best of them were able to achieve great wealth as craftspeople.
On the other hand, it was always understood that those who went to college would not become wealthy (unless they inherited it). Rather, they would have a good living in a handful of professions such as teaching, or the clergy, and never be poor. Overall, nobody went to college as a way to increase his/her income potential; even successful musicians like Beethoven honed their craft as apprentices instead.
From The Recent Past To The Present
Somewhere along the way we decided that everyone should be able to go to college – I’m not sure why. The economy began to change, and the U.S. government had to create financial aid programs for students. Soon after when college exceeded the cost of financial aid, Federal Student Loans came in. After that, tuition exceeded the Federal Loans so Private Lenders came in to prey on the herd of students. Student debt has been a significant issue since the early 1990s, and has grown dramatically up to this point. We now have parents weighing their children’s education against their retirement because they cannot adequately afford both.
Although the average student loan debt for college graduates is about the price of a brand new car, students from low-income backgrounds borrow far more. Note that the low-income students are most desperate to use education as a means to increase their financial standing. Further, those who attend graduate and professional school like me (especially the best schools) will borrow enough to buy a decent house. The reality today is simply a repeat of the past; a college education is something that only wealthy people can truly pay for, and everyone else seeking one will have to endure intense hardships. Some of these hardships are created by debt, while other hardships will come from efforts to avoid debt.
Now you know. What do you do?
First, stop telling your children to just go to college; it is the wrong way to express your desire that they be successful and financially secure. I prefer to talk to young people in terms of talents, skills and propensities that they have which can be matched to needs that exist in the marketplace. Not all such talents require a formal university education. Today there are plenty of ways to become financially secure without going to college, yet people lean on college for that purpose more than any other.
Secondly, those that are college-bound, already there, or graduated must adopt a true market orientation to reap the best financial rewards. What are the skills that employers expect people with your degree to have? For example, if you are an English Major, Marketing Major, or Communications Major but don’t know how to use WordPress, you will not likely be marketable in the workplace. This is because people with those majors are the ones writing and maintaining corporate blogs and social media campaigns.
If your professors cannot tell you what employers are hiring people with your skill set and how much they are paying, please change your major immediately [unless you want to become a professor yourself]. For my part, a market orientation led me to start my tax practice, and then begin writing this website for my clients who are all young professionals and entrepreneurs. Too often, we are stuck on what we think we should be doing with our degrees, and therefore blind ourselves to the money we can make from doing things that the market place expects from us.
Do you agree or disagree? Have you experienced any effects of the devaluation of a college education?