Americans Disagree on the Value of a College Education

As the nation's experts and politicians discuss how to remedy the difficulties of earning a degree, what is often lost is the real difference college can make to the future of those who undertake the challenge. Laura Anglin, writing for the Huffington Post, claims that the story of her own family — and how a degree ended up shaping the life not only of her father, the first to graduate college in his family, but also the lives of his children and grandchildren — is proof that there's more than monetary value to a college education.

Today, a lack of higher education can be a real barrier to economic mobility, since most of the highest-paying industries require specialized knowledge that high schools simply don't provide. Anglin argues that even as the price of education continues to rise, it is still one of the best investments anyone can make to secure their own economic future. Even in difficult economic times, a college degree has proved to be a bulwark against uncertainty. As the unemployment numbers for the country as a whole ticked up to 8.5% and beyond, at its worst, the figure among college graduates was only slightly more than 4%.

There are no indications that a college degree will matter less in the future. Anglin cites a Georgetown University study which found that more than 2/3rd of American jobs will require some kind of specialized training beyond high school level, including in industries like healthcare and social assistance that are projected to experience the biggest growth between now and 2018.

Getting to the win-win that comes from increasing the number of college-educated individuals in the United States will take a renewed commitment to an historical partnership. Thanks to a unique combination of federal, state, philanthropic and college-based student aid programs, millions of students have become the first in their families to complete college, just like my father. These investments have benefited all Americans with the creation of new technologies, products and industries; greater civic engagement; and less reliance on the commonweal.

Whatever Anglin's beliefs are on the benefits of higher education, it seems that an increasing number of potential students aren't sharing them. According to the Indiana Statesman, a recent Pew Research study concludes that more than half of Americans no longer believe that a college degree represents a good value for the money. A full three-quarters also think that at the current prices, going to college is out of reach for most of their countrymen.

The Statesman attributes this attitude to two factors: that college education might have become too easy, and the tough economic climate has led many to apply more scrutiny to the wisdom of all their expenses, including tuition.

Has college become too easy? These statistics suggest so. And if that is the case then what does that say about the original goal of higher education? A 2011 report by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska titled "Academically Adrift" found that 36 percent of students made no significant gains in critical-thinking skills in college. And when over a quarter of college presidents across America believe that the faculty at their own university grades students too leniently, it becomes obvious that we aren't requiring too much effort to succeed, thereby changing the very nature of the successful college graduate.

However, of those who chose to forgo a college education, most cite financial issues as the primary reason for their decision. Many believe that they would be better off in the long run spending the years they would have dedicated to obtaining a college degree by entering the job market. Less than half said that if they could afford college they would enroll in one. This view will likely become more prevalent as student loan burdens grow and half of recent college graduates have yet to find full-time employment.

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