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Diminished returns

College may not be worth the money for many students

Diminished returns

Two cycles converge this spring: the quadrennial general election campaign and the annual college rush. Desperate high-school seniors are pulling together last-minute applications or anxiously awaiting the letter that opens the pearly gates to the institution of their choice; meanwhile candidates are promising more funds to help more young people realize their higher-education dreams. And more funds are necessary. Average costs (tuition, room and board) at nonprofit private colleges have risen 81 percent since 1994 (to well over $30,000 per year). The costs at public universities are a much lower investment-around $6,000-but still a healthy chunk of change.

The vast majority of students receive some kind of aid: scholarships, grants, work-study, even laptop computers. Still it may be worthwhile, before constructing this particular tower (see Luke 14:28) to count the cost. Is graduating with a $100,000 student loan a promising way to start a career-especially if entry-level jobs in your field are paying $30,000 per year? And if your fiancée carries a similar burden with prospects little better?

Charles Miller, an investment strategist and former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents, is one of many who are airing their doubts in public. In a letter to the College Board last April, Miller challenges the common assertion that "college is worth a million dollars" over the years in individual earning power. That claim, he says, is based on flawed assumptions, such as failing to adjust for inflation, factoring in advanced degrees, and assuming that students finish a four-year degree in only four years (when less than half actually do). The College Board naturally disagrees with Miller; for one thing, its periodically updated "Education Pays" report doesn't tout that million-dollar figure. But yes, they insist: In time, an individual's earning power rises with every year of college completed.

This has certainly been true in the past, when tuition was relatively low and fewer high-school graduates went on to higher education. The business structure was different also: more corporate, less entrepreneurial. A college degree signaled that the bearer had attained a body of knowledge and level of skills. Unless the degree was in law or medicine, very little of that knowledge would actually be used on the job-but at least the applicant with enough ambition to finish a four-year course of study was a good bet for long-term employment.

The landscape is more chaotic now, with corporations downsizing, services outsourcing, and a glut of computer programmers. College graduates are competing for jobs that used to be-and still are-done perfectly well by high-school graduates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 30 percent of all jobs demand a college degree, while 40 percent of the fastest-growing jobs don't require them. A growing number of jobs (including such esoteric fields as microbiology) are threatened with outsourcing.

There is, or should be, more to a college degree than dollar value. Like learning, for instance. But when you're carrying a full course load and working at a part-time job and getting too involved in personal relationships (a typical undergrad scenario), it's hard to find time for gaining wisdom. That's a lifetime project, anyway; one could pursue it equally well by entering a trade or starting a business while enrolling in free courses online.

There are, or should be, good reasons for going to college-like preparation for life and a professional career. But many young people without professional goals could get their life preparation elsewhere, like travel, apprenticeship, or volunteer work. As a mere rite of passage, or a way station between adolescence and responsibility, college is probably not the best use of one's money.

None of this is meant to discourage young people from their dreams. But the once-solid link between higher education and higher income is rusting away while nontraditional opportunities are blossoming. It might be wise to give alternatives a second look.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to