Would Your Kid Be Better Off Without College?

New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg writes in the Week in Review of the growing group of experts arguing that, for many high school students, enrolling a four-year college is unlikely to yield good results -- and that there should be greater emphasis on alternative paths.New York Times education reporter Jacques Steinberg writes in Week in Review of the growing group of experts arguing that, for many high school students, enrolling in a four-year college is unlikely to yield good results -- and that there should be greater emphasis on alternative paths.

Steinberg writes: "Among those calling for such alternatives are the economists Richard K. Vedder of Ohio University and Robert I. Lerman of American University, the political scientist Charles Murray, and James E. Rosenbaum, an education professor at Northwestern. They would steer some students toward intensive, short-term vocational and career training, through expanded high school programs and corporate apprenticeships."

Too Many Students Go to College?

The evidence that far too many high school students are enrolling in college is overwhelming. Last month, I wrote about the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed that 70.1% of 2009 high school graduates were enrolled in college classes during October 2009. As I noted then, most of the growth in college enrollment is probably coming from academically marginal candidates -- which is a problem.

According to Marty Nemko
, a columnist with U.S. News & World Report, "among college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, 76 of 100 won't earn a diploma, even if given 8 1/2 years." And even for students who do graduate, the economic advantages of a college degree are under fire. During the first four months of 2009, fewer than half of four-year college graduates under age 25 were working at jobs that required a four-year degree. U.S. employers are also expecting to hire 7% fewer college grads from the class of 2010 than from the class of 2009.

With numbers like that, how can anyone possibly think that the problem in the labor market is that not enough people are graduating from college?

College Degrees Less Valuable

Last year The College Board, a group representing the interests of colleges and universities, backed off its long-time claim that a college degree increases lifetime earnings by $800,000. As Lynn O'Shaughnessy of MoneyWatch.com reported, the group quietly changed its estimate to $450,000 -- a drop in value of more than 40%, and no, you won't be getting a refund if you enrolled in higher education based on The College Board's exaggerated claims.

Morton Schapiro, an economist and the president of Northwestern University, made the somewhat absurd claim to Mr. Steinberg that even students who don't graduate from college benefit from the experience, because "some college, whether you complete it or not, contributes to aesthetic appreciation, better health and better voting behavior."

If all you crave is aesthetic appreciation, you can get Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection on four DVDs from Amazon for just $58.99 (it's on sale and qualifies for Super Saver Shipping). And while there is certainly evidence that people who attend college take better care of their bodies and live longer than those who never enroll, that would almost certainly be a case of selection bias. Does anyone honestly think that playing beer pong and sitting through the occasional lecture for a couple semesters leads to a longer life?

"Better voting behavior"? If you want to vote, vote. You don't need to enroll in college for the purpose of making yourself statistically more likely to vote. That's absolutely insane.

Better Ways to Do College

Nevertheless, the potential benefits of a college degree are enormous, and students who are interested in pursuing higher education shouldn't be discouraged. Here are a few suggestions for how you can help your child avoid becoming a disgruntled former college student who didn't reap the rewards education promised:
  • Stay out of debt. The easiest way to make college a terrible investment is to borrow money to pay for it. I recently wrote about the dangers of student loans and showed that it is in fact possible to graduate from college debt-free without a fat savings account or six-figure income. If you pay for college with cash, your downside risk is limited. Take out loans, and you could find yourself with ruined credit, a cash flow crunch, garnished wages and a slew of other problems to accompany poor employment prospects.
  • Start at a community college. The average tuition and fees at a public two-year college is just $2,544, compared with $26,273 at the average private four-year college. If your kid is going to drop out, he is most likely to do it in the first two years of college. Take the low-risk option for those years -- so if he does drop out, you're not broke or in debt -- and then you'll feel more at ease ponying up for the final two years once he's proven himself.
  • Recognize that a degree does not entitle anyone to a job anymore. As I wrote earlier this month, studies show that working while attending college doesn't lead to lower achievement -- except perhaps in beer pong. Employers are more interested in students with work experience than those with impressive academic pedigrees, which is convenient: Pedigrees cost money and work experience can help pay for college.
  • Don't be oversold on the "career training" benefits of college. Many of the most in-demand jobs of the future probably don't exist today. So how could you possibly expect college to prepare you for them in a linear way? Go to college to become smarter, more connected, and more disciplined. Pursue your passion, work 10 times harder than anyone else, and be prepared to slug it out in what will probably continue to be an extremely difficult job market.
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