Commentary: Making College Pay Off

The Saturday, February 4, 2014 Wall Street Journal included a fantastic Saturday Essay titled, "Degrees of Value: Making College Pay Off," by Glenn Harlan Reynolds. Mr. Reynolds is a University of Tennessee law professor who has written a new book, "The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education From Itself," published by Encounter Books.  The essay includes some powerful advice for students (and their parents) who are considering college, "To make college a good value again, today's parents and students need to be skeptical, frugal and demanding. There is no single solution to what ails higher education in the U.S., but changes are beginning to emerge, from outsourcing to online education, and they could transform the system."

After discussing many of the factors that have contributed to the "higher education bubble" and the administrative bloat that has resulted, Mr. Reynolds says parents and students need to be wiser consumers of higher education by "choosing a major carefully (opting for a more practical area of study, like engineering over the humanities), going to a less expensive community college or skipping college altogether to learn a trade."  We agree wholeheartedly.  While statistics clearly show over time, those with college degrees earn more than those without a degree, there are exceptions to this rule.  Employers we speak with every day lament the fact they can't fill some skilled trades positions.  Those who like working with their hands and pursue a skilled trade can  pretty quickly be earning a six figure salary while racking up no college debt.  While we don't want to discourage people from pursuing a degree, we do encourage them to be wise consumers and to carefully evaluate the costs and benefits of specific degrees before they invest four years and tens of thousands of dollars in a degree that ultimately may not improve their employment prospects after graduation.

Though some of the innovations in higher education such as discounts are encouraging, the author accurately points out, that "discounts don't address the real problem: high costs. What's really needed in U.S. higher education is major structural change. To remain viable, colleges and universities need to cut expenditures dramatically. For decades, they have ridden the student-loan gravy train, using the proceeds to build palatial buildings, reduce faculty teaching loads and, most notably, hire armies of administrators."  

As the author says, many prospective students are left with no choice but to try to understand the potential earning prospects for their degree of choice because "For an 18-year-old, investing such a sum in an education without a payoff makes no more sense than buying a Ferrari on credit."