The Higher Ed Debate Over Whether College Pays Off For Everyone

The education industry has debated for many years whether college is the right choice for everyone, regardless of circumstances. In 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education asked several experts to weigh in on the question "Are Too Many Students Going to College?" and there were as many different answers to that question as there were experts to ask. The concept of return on your college investment is an oft-discussed, and debated, topic around the College Factual offices. The discussion typically wends its way towards 'value', a concept which is hard-to-define broadly and is greatly influenced by individual beliefs and experiences, as demonstrated by the article above.

Our Best Colleges For The Money rankings relay the quantitative data, but the qualitative experiences one may have at college are harder to measure.

This made the paper published by Brookings Institution all the more intriguing, as based on numbers, it takes the position that some potential students should 'just say no', and not even attempt the college route, as it will not provide an adequate pay-off later in life. is a mistake to unilaterally tell young Americans that going to college—any college—is the best decision they can make.

They point out that while 'on average', college graduates make more than those who did not attend college, averages can be misleading.

...a 17- or 18-year-old deciding whether and where to go to college should carefully consider his or her own likely path of education and career before committing a considerable amount of time and money to that degree. With tuitions rising faster than family incomes, the typical college student is now more dependent than in the past on loans, creating serious risks....

It is true that researching colleges carefully and choosing wisely is paramount, as earnings vary widely depending on major and college -- you can see that in our rankings of highest paid grads. But, what raised my eyebrows a little was this statement:

If they choose wisely and attend a school with generous financial aid and high expected earnings, and if they don’t just enroll but graduate, they can greatly improve their lifetime prospects. The information needed to make a wise decision, however, can be difficult to find and hard to interpret.

Factual and easy to understand information on colleges is hard to find -- that's what prompted this website. But, based on data from this website, I know that finding a college offering both generous financial aid and high expected earnings can be difficult for the average high school student.

Private institutions with large endowments tend to have the most generous packages, but are often highly selective and hard to get in to. A prestigious reputation also provides, generally speaking, the highest expected salary returns. So, what is this study saying? That if you can't score a huge financial aid package at a highly-respected college or university, you should just take the vocational route? Yes, in fact, it does seem to be saying that:

...there are many well-paid job openings going unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the right skills—skills that young potential workers could learn from training programs, apprenticeships, a vocational certificate, or an associate’s degree....There has long been resistance to vocational education in American high schools, for fear that “tracking” students reinforces socioeconomic (and racial) stratification and impedes mobility.

Should everyone go to college? Well, probably not, and I'm not sure that anyone is saying that every student, no matter how unprepared or unmotivated should attempt a bachelor's degree. But, shouldn't everyone have that option? Is it right to advocate for a world where you just 'give up' if you can't get in to that selective college with the high financial aid package and the best paid grads?  What about grit and determination? What about overcoming odds?

With student loan debt soaring, and colleges themselves facing their own financial woes, there is no doubt that difficult decisions in higher education are ahead of us. I would hope, however, that we do not put all the burden of these decisions on those with less-than-perfect grades and less-then-abundant college funds.


Should Everyone Go to College?, Published May 8, 2013, Brookings Institution

Are Too Many Students Going to College?, Published November 8, 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education