Education in America: College

What is the value of a college education?

I was the first woman in the history of our family to graduate from college. I didn’t get around to it until 2005. (I think! I’d have to go upstairs to be sure, but I’m pretty sure it was May of 2005.) When I went back it was more for my own vanity, the desire to have a degree, than to better my economic situation. I commuted; I went to a third-tier school; I paid cash for my tuition. My college degree means nothing in relation to what I do daily. Oh, sure, I love to wave it around every once in a while, but it’s basically worthless. Yes, I learned a few things, but when push comes to shove, I still have to look it up to confirm what I think I remember.

So why in the world did I insist my children pursue a college degree?

One took to it naturally. He learned the ins and outs of computer programming there. He conquered the thinking of higher math that in turn lets him stay viable in the workplace. He also put together a film degree, his first love, that he dreams of jumping into someday. He’s making good money. He went to an in-state school and tuition was very reasonable. I’d have to say he’s the reason you go to college. But I’d also argue in this case college was also something of a trade school, as he was taught a specific craft.

The next one hated school. He ended up pursuing a degree in theology because, and please don’t think I’m saying this hatefully, “it’s one of the things he doesn’t already know.” He probably is the best thinker in the family. He has absolutely no desire to prove it. I argued until I was nearly blue in the face he needed to finish the degree in order to prove to a future employer he could jump through all the required hoops. Now I’ll confess I probably failed him. I’m beginning to think he needed to be a carpenter. Why did I not value that? I assumed because of his natural cognitive talent, he had to use it. It was an expensive demand on my part. A degree from Marquette is a lot more expensive than a degree from Madison.

Then there’s this last one. Her degree will frankly be obscenely expensive. (We can do that because her father, whose family saved to put him through a third-tier school in Oklahoma in the late Seventies, converted four years into a goldmine.) The cost of her experience includes a completely different lifestyle in a very expensive part of the country. There’s a pretty good chance it will never pay back. But it’s a gift we give freely and she accepts gladly. There are no expectations.

I tell you this personal accounting of education in our family to let you understand how we value education. It’s an emotional value, and not a monetary one, that drives the goal of a college degree. Unfortunately, that’s not most of America’s understanding.

For contrast I’ll offer the general story of another young couple we have for friends. That family’s philosophy is that you get as much education as you can in the best school you can be accepted and deal with the debt later. They have, before the age of thirty, hundreds of thousands in student loans between them. I would venture a guess it’s more than the loan one of our sons just took out for his first home. On the one hand are a master’s degree and a law degree and perpetual job hunting in a down market, on the other 2,100 square feet of permanent shelter.

Is this what America intended?

To get a start on understanding the debt piled up in the name of education, I’ll share this infograph that came through the feed reader via Man vs. Debt. The graphic work is from* The data came from

*It is not my usual practice to copy and paste something like this from my server. However, I didn’t want to burden the Man vs. Debt crowd by pulling it from there, and I couldn’t get’s infographics to load. On my honor, if someone form the source needs to contact me with a better way to handle this, I’m glad to change it. PS I think the graphic is awesome.

The information from the graphic is mind boggling, no?

It reminds me of the cycle of the company store. You buy goods to survive on credit, but to pay that credit off you have to work for the company, and the only way you can continue to work for the company is to buy things on credit.

America has schemed the youth out of their future. Education is in a bubble. From

…the bubble that has taken the place of housing is the higher education bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

That’s from PayPal founder Peter Thiel. He’s called a bubble or two. Education now is “consumption masquerading as investment” according to the article.

Really, it can not be made more plain. When we started I told you how our family consumes education. I said it was emotional. It is, purely, a consumption of education. Very little of the price of that education is an investment in the children’s future. It’s like needing a bag to carry your wallet and car keys around and saying it has to be this $2,500 version instead of this $6.99 one which is quite functional.

Even NPR is asking if a college education is worth the debt.

So, college is expensive. How did it get that way? We’ll leave that as the opening question for the next installment.


  1. i have 2 children still paying off student loans from law school. it was their idea and they do not complain.

  2. The worst thing that happened to college education was the introduction of student loans. As soon as you insulate people from the true cost of something, the costs increase. In 1976, the average salary was about $9,000 and tuition at Harvard was about $4,000. Now the average salary is about $40,000 and tuition at Harvard is nearly $60,000.

  3. “As soon as you insulate people from the true cost of something, the costs increase.”

    Bingo. It is true in education and it is true in health care.

  4. University is great if you have a clear direction in mind and are able to find a school with a strong program in that specialty area.

    University is a miserable idea if you have no idea what you want to do. Go to a technical/community college, take classes to fulfill general requirements and in areas of study that you are considering, and think long and hard about it before you make a decision.

    Certainly I am not saying that university students should never change majors. But in my college experience, I was struck at how much time and money people squandered by wasting 2 years in something that they knew all along they didn’t really want to do…. but I guess that is better than another fairly common occurance… people who pick a major arbitrarily, hate it, but don’t want to be seen as the person who “couldn’t make it through” so they complete their degree and set themselves up for a life of work that they hate.

    In business, plans can change, but you still need a plan before you invest a lot of money in something. College ought to be viewed the same way.

  5. Ah, so maybe a lot of people aren’t really ready for college. It’s not a matter of academics, but maturity.

  6. Exactly. But then again, there are certain aspects of college that don’t exactly lend themselves to developing maturity. So you’d better have at least some of it before you enter….

  7. Anonymous says:

    when i grad college i had no job and no plan. then a friend talked me into law school. after military service and an attempted baseball career, i returned to law school and finished, without a financial aid and many fill in jobs. college education is wonderful and will do you well. i am not up to date in the current education world but my guess is that the ambition has not been installed by, guess who ? i have one in my family who did not listen and is very very sorry. of course it costs money, so do fancy cars, big homes, electronics, vacations, and many other self indulgent lifestyles. “big boys/girls don’t cry”. DICK STEINBERG.

  8. Anonymous says:

    my wife reminds me to add that student loans not only cover the bare education costs but some add on many non essentials such as concerts, vacations, cars, lavish dinners, expensive clothes, etc. the more you want the more you borrow. she has the experience to know. DICK STEINBERG

  9. I was the second in my family to receive a college degree; my sister being the first one to graduate college. It took me 8 years because I worked and went to school. I did supplement with some loans but nothing near what people do now. I went to a local state school, commuted and paid my loans off early. We are still paying on my husband’s loans from grad school. He didn’t have any from undergrad. While we have some $ put away for our children it will be different for each of them. I’m not sure one will even pursue the traditional route. I think families need to look at what they can afford and really know what is in the hearts of their children. We feel strongly about education and it’s probably more emotional, too. However, I’m starting to see it’s not always a 4 year degree that is the definition of education. Perhaps it’s 2 year degree or an apprenticeship, etc.. It really depends on the person, their interests and God given gifts in my humble opinion.