Thursday night, America’s Future Foundation, in conjunction with the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, hosted a roundtable discussion on the price of higher education and the true value of a college degree. The panel of scholastic experts agreed that college degrees are increasingly less important, even as President Obama recently called them an “economic necessity.”
Although federal subsidy programs for students, such as Pell grants, have increased 475 percent since 1982, the cost of attending college has increased 439 percent—faster than the rate of health care increases, reports the Heritage Foundation.
Conventional wisdom calls a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university the ticket to the American dream. President Obama even dubbed a college degree an “economic necessity” and advocates expanding federal student loan programs.
But with students and college graduates accumulating obscene levels of debt and facing ballooning costs and ballooning enrollment to obtain the coveted degree, the benefits of that very same degree are decreasing as those degrees are becoming less relevant for actually functioning in a career.
Andrew Gillen, a fellow at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, explained the college cost bubble in simplistic terms: “For every 100 students who attend college [only] 58 graduate,” he said. And of those students who graduate, “only 38 use their degree in some meaningful sense.” Only a little over a third of graduates, then, have a degree they use for their career; parents, students, and the community are “wasting a lot of resources sending the other 2/3 to college,” Gillen remarked.
And those college grads may not end up exactly where they expected.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as Lindsey Burke of The Heritage Foundation mentioned during her opening remarks, “there are 115,000 janitors, 83,000 bartenders, 323,000 restaurant servers, and 80,000 truck drivers [in the United States] with bachelor’s degrees,” roles we can safely assume do not require the time or cost of a college degree.
Gillen explained how universities are actually “competing for reputation, and the only way is to spend more money… better faculty, better labs, better students because you can offer them more scholarships.” Colleges, Gillen said, are in a “furious race to spend as much money as possible,” even if accumulating prestige takes precedence over providing a thorough education.
Gillen predicts the college cost bubble will pop first in areas where outside certification exams are necessary for practicing in that field, for instance, certified public accountants who take the CPA exam and lawyers who need to pass the Bar exam. “It’s not the degree that’s required, it’s the skills,” added Pope Center scholar Jenna Robinson.
For at least two thirds of students, the time spent earning their degree actually prevents them from learning those necessary skills.