Why are we spending so much money on college?
And why are we so unhappy about it? We all seem to agree that a college education is wonderful, and yet strangely we worry when we see families investing so much in this supposedly essential good. Maybe it’s time to ask a question that seems almost sacrilegious: is all this investment in college education really worth it?
The answer, I fear, is that it’s not. For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus.
For my entire adult life, an education has been the most important thing for middle-class households. My parents spent more educating my sister and me than they spent on their house, and they’re not the only ones … and, of course, for an increasing number of families, most of the cost of their house is actually the cost of living in a good school district. Questioning the value of a college education seems a bit like questioning the value of happiness, or fun.
Donald Marron, a private-equity investor whose portfolio companies have included a student-loan firm and an educational-technology startup, says, “If you’re in a position to be able to pay for education, it’s a bargain.” Those who can afford a degree from an elite institution are still in an enviable position. “You’ve got that with you for your whole life,” Marron pointed out. “It’s a real imprimatur that’s with you, as well as access to all these relationships.”
That’s true. I have certainly benefited greatly from the education my parents sacrificed to give me. On the other hand, that kind of education has gotten a whole lot more expensive since I was in school, and jobs seem to be getting scarcer, not more plentiful. These days an increasing number of commentators are nervously noting the uncomfortable similarities to the housing bubble, which started with parents telling their children that “renting is throwing your money away,” and ended in mass foreclosures.
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