Is a college education still cost-effective? There is only one possible answer: it depends.
First, it depends on who is paying for your education. If you are wealthy enough or have obtained scholarships to a private institution, it’s all up to you. However, if you are poor or middle class and aren’t a standout athelete, and are forced to attend a state institution, that’s different.
Nobody likes to talk about it, but states subsidize a huge portion of the cost of being educated at a state college or university. Along with financial aid and the GI bill, this has allowed many Americans who otherwise would not have the opportunity, to seek higher education. That was a good thing. For a time. Before World War II, college was something only for the rich. The GI Bill permitted tens of thousands of GIs returning from the war to attend college. However, in the 1960s, states began subsidizing education at their colleges and universities, including the apex of this approach, California, where any resident of the state could attend for free. Of course, that helped bankrupt California.
The 1967 counter-culture book and movie The Graduate pooh-poohing a college education even as it pointed to its necessity today. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman’s character has just graduated from an unnamed college with an unidentified degree. A tipsy, bloviating uncle tells Hoffman’s directionless character to go into plastics. Despite the counter-culture theme of the film, the reality is that in 1967, for most jobs outside specific sciences and engineering fields, it really didn’t matter what degree Hoffman’s character had taken. A degree in any discipline, from English to Math or from History to Business or from Economics to Biology would open management-level, career-track doors in virtually any industry.
But that was then, this is now. Today, a bachelor’s degree in most disciplines outside the hard sciences and engineering carries about the same economic weight as did a general high school diploma before the early 1960s. And for a very long time tuition remained low enough to put college into reach for many Americans. Over the past decade, however, tuition and associated costs at virtually every college and university in the country have skyrocketed. Some estimates place the average increase at 30% or more. If America wants to keep its lead as an educated population, it may be time to look at ways to trim the fat.
One way to do that would be to cut or eliminate subsidization of anachronistic and generally less economically valued programs in the Liberal Arts and soft sciences. How many industries today actively seek someone holding a Bachelor of Arts degree in disciplines such as Literature or History, or Psychology, or Archeology or, especially, in the post-1960s fad degrees of Ethnic and Gender studies? About the only places those holding such degrees might look for work are in education and government. That’s fine for those actively seeking careers in these fields. But many obtain these heavily subsidized bachelor’s degrees with no intention of teaching K-12 and today, you won’t find a position in most disciplines, even at two-year college that does not require a Ph.D. As for “government jobs.” Good luck. While governments are always hiring, more and more they are hiring those Ph.Ds, for the same money. And why not?
No industry today actively seeks new-hires holding only Bachelor of Arts degrees in most such disciplines. Don’t believe it? Search the Craigslist or Monster employment want ads. Count the ads reading something like this: Wanted: BA Lit major for high-paying job in fast-paced, growing company. Must be expert in Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, Melville and/or Dickinson and able to quote across a wide range from Wheatley to O’Connor. Familiarity with the Romantic poets and Magic Realism a big plus! Or how about Wanted: growing international company seeks highly-motivated Archeology BS to manage situation team in Indonesia. Expertise in mid-Renaissance Andorran tapestries a must! I’m guessing you won’t have to take off your shoes to add them up. Moreover, post-graduate (Masters) degrees are replacing bachelor’s degrees as the high school diploma of today. This means that most competing even for government jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees in things like Sociology and Psychology are competing with those holding Masters degrees and often Ph. Ds. As a practical matter today, regardless of what the position calls for, without at least a Master’s degree, you will not be hired.
So the question is this: Should American taxpayers continue to be soaked to indulge students seeking economically valueless degrees? Do waiters and shopping-mall-cell-phone-kiosk employees really need bachelor’s degrees, and should the rest of us pay for it?
None of this is not to say that our colleges and universities should do away with these disciplines altogether, of course. A rounded education in any discipline must include a host of elective studies from literature and art to music and history and the other social sciences. The question is whether the rest of us should be stuck paying for one-third of a degree in one of these economically nonviable disciplines for someone whose chances of putting that degree to work, earning a living, are nil and none. Those (or their parents) willing to shoulder the entire, un-subsidized cost of a Bachelor of Arts degree in say, Literature of the Post-Romantic Era or in Pacific Island Cultural Studies, should be welcome to do so. Taxpayers, however, should no longer be required to pony up a share of the cost of this sort of education.
Sometimes, a culture must take stock and make choices. American culture today must compete with increasingly educated populations in Asia and South America. The Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Southeast Asian students being churned out of the world’s universities are not entering the global market with BAs in Psych and Art History. They take degrees in Business, Economics, Technology, Science and Engineering, the sorts of educations that apply to the work world of today, and not to that of The Graduate. Meanwhile, America continues to grant more Liberal Arts and soft sciences bachelor’s degrees than we do Business, Science and Engineering degrees, in part, because we’ve agreed to pay for them and because they are far easier to get.
America no longer has an assured place at the top of the industrial, business or education heaps. Wasting billions of taxpayer dollars every year to educate Americans in economically valueless disciplines is an indulgence the nation can no longer afford. It’s time to wake up and smell the plastics before we all find ourselves working for Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese with Business or Econ degrees from UCLA and SUNY.