Is college no longer necessary?

Is college no longer necessary?
© Greg Nash

Less than a generation ago, going to college was as American as apple pie and a basic rite of passage for youngsters after high school — even for those without high academic grades and SAT scores. Anyone without a degree from an accredited institute of higher learning was deemed part of an inferior pool of workers and condemned to a lifetime of low wages and low-level career prospects. 

And then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the tides turned against the social mandate for a college education. Famous dropouts became a fixture of the corporate elite. Big companies started to drop degree requirements and re-train their staff instead. All the while, college tuition continued to rise well ahead of inflation, leading millions to question the necessity of a college degree in today’s world.

Amid a student loan crisis and skepticism over the return-on-investment on a college degree, millions of young Americans have gotten the message: College is no longer an automatic ticket into the middle class — or necessary for success. 

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This seismic shift in attitudes against higher education is occurring faster than the legions of officials in academia and public policy could ever have imagined. GenBiz, a non-profit dedicated to promoting financial and entrepreneurial literacy, in association with SurveyUSA, found in a recent survey that 50 percent of young people don’t think college is worth it.

Twenty-nine percent thought vocational training was more valuable than a college education, while 21 percent felt a college education was more valuable. Forty-one percent believe they are equally valuable.  

Even in a world that obsesses over college preparatory academics in high school, our national culture is moving beyond college as a requisite for a successful career and life. 

Looking at recent history, who can blame anyone for concluding that a college education isn’t worth the cost? Institutions of higher learning have raised tuition relentlessly and dumped the debt burden on their own students. The average young American now graduates with nearly $30,000 in debt, eclipsing past generations in the financial burdens that they carry as they try to launch their adult lives. Eye-popping levels of student debt among Americans are so common that it’s no wonder the next generation wants to avoid the same fate. 

You would think that the bonanza of money that colleges are enjoying in recent times would translate into investing more in their students. Sadly, that’s not necessarily true. Instead of improving instructional quality and post-graduate outcomes, most colleges and universities have grown their bureaucratic ranks and not adopted career-oriented curricula – or even financial literacy classes – to any significant degree. It’s no wonder why student enrollment levels are beginning to drop

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Many young people should still go to college. But in a post-college world, you should think twice before you pick the institution of your choice. In my era, more than 15 years ago, we were more focused on how we felt about a college during a visit. It might seem baffling to some, but most of us never considered the cost of attendance.

Today’s generation has a healthier view of higher education, asking the same questions they would ask of any other product or service: Is it necessary? Is it a good value? And are there alternatives? You should explore all avenues, and avoid high levels of student debt that impede your ability to thrive.  

If you have the academic discipline and the means to graduate without student debt, then college remains a superb experience. I highly recommend it to those who can afford it and who pursue a major that leads to a degree that will help them get a job and build a career.

In the end, if you or your child plan to pursue a degree from an institution of higher learning, view it with skepticism and with eyes wide open to today’s workforce realities. Affordability and practicality should be high on everyone’s priority list, as most undergraduate degrees often don’t propel graduates into perfect career paths. Choose a major that has growing employment prospects, and be sure that your education offers a reasonable return-on-investment.

David Grasso is media director of GenBiz.org, a nonprofit that promotes financial literacy and entrepreneurship for young Americans.