Does going to a traditional college still make sense?

Save your tuition money—and get a real education.

Gagan BiyaniCo-Founder

Biyani has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, FastCompany,, and other publications.

There is no question that college is valuable for many students. I imagine that almost every person, (including, myself) reading this debate believes their his or her college experience was valuable. But times have changed, and the people I am concerned about are most likely not reading this publication.

I am concerned for the legions of America’s youth who are told that if you do well in school and go to college, you will be successful. That statement is not true. If you do well in school and go to a top 100 college, then you have a significantly better chance of being successful. If you don’t go to a top 100 college, you will most likely spend four years of your life, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, without getting what you paid for.

There are two big assumptions about college that I take issue with. And while a college education has other virtues, I do not believe these virtues are sufficient to justify the expense and the opportunity cost.

The first assumption is that you need to go to college to acquire knowledge. The reality is that there are simply not enough great professors in the world to teach America’s youth in traditional colleges. So unless you’re going to an elite university, you are not learning from the best—and you are not getting the same quality of education that a student at Stanford or Harvard would get.

Today, there are much better ways to learn—through experience, for example, by working or building something on your own, and through books and conversation. Most important, the Internet provides a wealth of information and new types of instruction. If you’re motivated, you can now learn from top professors and researchers in open, online courses for free or for very little. Frankly, I could have learned most of what I learned in college on the job or online.

The second assumption is that college enhances career opportunities. This is why many people go to college, yet it is far from the truth. If you go to a top 100 school, then, yes, you will have increased career opportunities. Also, if you are trying to be a lawyer, doctor, or work in higher education, you should probably go to some sort of university (though I question whether an undergraduate degree is a necessary part of that equation). But for everyone else, a four-year degree is not more valuable than two to four years of work experience. You are better off learning in the real world and getting real-world skills than going to a university. Spend the money you would have spent on tuition to start a few businesses, or to build a blog or to work for free as an intern. Bottom line: if you don’t get into a top-tier school, don’t go. And even if you do get into a top 100 college, give the alternatives some careful thought.

College still makes sense.

Anthony Carnevale

Director – Center on Education and the Workforce
Georgetown University

Anthony P. Carnevale is an internationally recognized authority on education, training and employment.

After World War II, the US economy promised middle-class jobs to high-school graduates and dropouts. As late as the 1970s, more than 70 percent of middle-class jobs still only required a high-school education or less, but between 1973 and 2010, the share of jobs requiring education beyond high school more than doubled, from 28 percent to more than 60 percent.

The future promises more of the same. Over the next decade, our own research shows there will be 31 million job openings that will require at least some postsecondary education or training—9 million newly created jobs and 22 million to replace retiring baby boomers.

Furthermore, since the end of the 1980–81 recession, access to college is what distinguishes the middle class from the growing number of low-income Americans. People with at least some college are staying in the middle class or moving up.

Our research shows that individuals with college degrees now make 84 percent more over their lifetimes than those with only a high-school diploma, up from 40 percent in 1983. Two-thirds of the high-school-level jobs that provided anything close to family-sustaining earnings (currently $35,000 per year) have disappeared, and those that are left are mostly filled by men in declining industries.

And a college diploma no longer forms a strict demarcation between a blue-collar and white-collar job. More and more blue-collar jobs demand postsecondary education and training—up to 43 percent in 2010 from 22 percent in the 80s. Clearly, not every young person requires a bachelor’s degree; many future job opportunities will require credentials that have an occupational focus, like certificates and associate’s degrees.

Sure, college is expensive—stories of students racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt are common. Federal student-loan default rates jumped from 7 percent in 2008 to 8.8 percent in 2009, so it’s clear that not everyone is handling that debt responsibly.

But consider this: the bachelor’s degree a graduate gets in 2015 will, on average, be worth a million dollars more in lifetime earnings than a newly minted high-school diploma. A two-year associate’s degree is worth $400,000 more than a high-school degree in lifetime earnings. Compare the cost and the benefit: even the most expensive colleges cost only a fraction of their ultimate payoff. In fact, one could argue that the only choice more expensive than going to college is not going to college.

Another thing to consider: the shift toward postsecondary education and training as the arbiter of middle-class earnings is tied to an economic trend that has only picked up steam during the recent recession. Technological advances, combined with relentless global competition and pressures for cost-cutting, have accelerated the automation of routine and programmable tasks in every occupation. Now, the jobs that survive are those that involve more sophisticated, nonroutine tasks, which demand deeper knowledge plus problem-solving and interpersonal skills.

Good jobs that require only a high-school education are leaving and will not be coming back. As long as we remain preoccupied with the economic wreckage in our rearview mirror, we will be hurtling unprepared into our economic future.




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