When is College No Longer Worth It?

By Gus Veerman

Unabated tuition hikes raise questions of value

The cracks are showing. What was once an institution of global envy and a rite of passage for the bright eyed youth is now turning into something ugly. The American university system reeks of debt and desperation. Students borrow against their future selves at increasing cost and futility. As labor markets lurch, attendance costs climb, and political realities darken, the cloud of anxiety that looms over the nation’s campuses grows.

The time has come to take a step back and face the truth; tuition can’t rise forever, and people will stop going to college at some point. Before this happens, the American public must analyze the worth of the university system and weigh the value of an increasing number of alternatives.

Most consider college as a sort of investment; students put down money in hopes that the knowledge and skills gained will lead to a decent job that can both pay back the principal and provide a decent standard of living while satisfying their parents.

College seems to be worth it when viewed through this return-on-investment lens. According to the Washington Post, “college graduates across the board have the lowest unemployment rates,” a trend which has strengthened since the recession. Those with high school diplomas or less are continually left behind as businesses automate low-skill manufacturing and clerical jobs.

Yet the benefits of a degree may not continue to outweigh the costs. From 1995 to 2015, tuition and fees at four-year American universities outpaced inflation by 123.9 percent, and there seems to be no serious push to bring down costs at either the federal or state levels. Check out this graph by dshort.com about rising tuition prices relative to other goods and services to see for yourself.

Worse, the replacement of fleshy, carbon-based labor with computers isn’t limited to blue collar jobs; college graduates are also increasingly vulnerable to automation replacement.

Billionaire venture capitalist Mark Cuban claims “What looks like a great job graduating from college today might not be a great job five years from now,” and that degrees in English and philosophy will increase in demand.

The White House argues “jobs that involve a high degree of creativity, analytical thinking and interpersonal communication” will be most secure in the era of AI. This is unwelcome news for STEM experts, because when computers can engineer software and cure diseases on their own, demand for human labor will plummet.

Hold on art history majors, don't fist-pump just yet. None of these changes in the labor market will reverse the general decrease in job opportunities for humans, and tuition costs will continue to increase as colleges waste money on facilities (sound familiar?) to attract students for non-academic purposes. The allocation of tuition money looks more like a cartoon than a balance sheet.

All this begs the question - with rising costs and fewer job opportunities, what alternatives are there?

Liberal arts majors can find most of their curriculum in a public library, and platforms such as edX and Coursera provide free and insightful Massively Online Open Courses, a.k.a., MOOCs, for all fields of inquiry. Likewise, community colleges offer degrees which cost less per-year and take less time to complete, and there are plenty of jobs available for two-year graduates.

If all of the knowledge available to a college undergraduate is available to the average American, it would seem an average Joe who has read stacks of books and spent years taking online courses could compete with graduates for jobs. If those who seek alternative forms of education could earn a respectable certification for their studies, then employers may be more willing to hire those who forgo college altogether.

Yet to regard college as nothing more than a sort of trade school, a four year skill-building and job-seeking endeavor, would be to disregard all of the splendor of the “college experience.”

Disregarding (if possible) the fact a four year degree at Tulane starts at $268,000, think of what you would miss if you spent your late teens/early twenties at a small community college and on online courses. You would never experience Boot Store extortion, futile attempts at staying awake in the late days of Mardi Gras, or the priceless friendships with students who did it all with you. It's these sweet crumbs of experience that lead graduates to fawn on their college days with nostalgia and longing.

Our university system is special, and although it definitely needs amending, it is worth preserving. Alternatives may do a fine job of credentialing and educating future generations, but they will never do it with the grace and edification of our universities.