College Value Needs Re-evaluation

May 25, 2016

It's graduation time, and job growth is still soft. If this is the “new normal,” we may need to rethink the narrative that has come to shape the way we think about education.

Since the end of World War II, higher education has been promoted as the gateway to “better-paying jobs.” For this reason, the college degree has been situated as a personal investment, and young people have been encouraged to go into debt to fund the opportunity. But if employment after graduation is less certain, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify making expenditures that will have little or even no return on investment.

As of 2014, U.S. student-loan debt totaled $1.2 trillion, or $29,000 per student. In order to maintain this system — and to do so at a time when universities have come to rely on student tuition for basic operating revenue — there needs to be a steady stream of high-paying jobs available to graduates, both to ensure repayment of existing loans and to convince future students to participate in the program. In the face of employment uncertainty, however, it is hard to sustain this system without the entire thing becoming a pyramid scheme.

In order to respond to this crisis we need, on the one hand, to revise the narrative of higher education, repositioning it as a public good and not a personal investment, and, on the other hand, to devise practical methods for publicly funding education that do not shift the burden to students and their families.

I'm David Gunkel, and that is my perspective.