In early November, the grace period for recent graduates with student debt will come to an end, and countless twenty-somethings will begin shelling out cash each month to pay for their completed college educations.
Many of whom won’t even have a full-time job.
Click to Enlarge According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for 20-to-24-year-olds is about 12% — significantly higher than the national average of 7.8%.
Combine said levels of postgraduate unemployment with the rising cost of college and even studies showing how little students actually learn, and higher education is left dodging criticism from all directions — most of which boil down to one simple question:
Is college worth it?
InvestorPlace had a chance to ask Gettysburg College President Janet Morgan Riggs just that — and a few other things about the state of higher education. Here’s what she had to say:
Q: More than half of college graduates are jobless or underemployed, and two of the most common jobs for members of today’s 20-to-30-year-olds are floor clerk and clothing sales associate. Couple the job troubles with record levels of student debt, and you can understand why many question whether college is worthwhile. So, quite simply, why is college worth it?
A: First, I’d say it’s important to take the longer view. Although it’s true we are in a challenging economic climate currently, a college education is going to have impact on earnings far beyond the next few years. College graduates make about a million dollars more than high school graduates across their working lives.
Second, college graduates are far more likely to be employed than those who don’t have a college degree. According to the Economic Policy Institute, last year 31% of young high school graduates were unemployed as compared to about 9% of young college graduates.
Third, a college education can open up avenues of professional and civic interest that a student might otherwise never discover.
Q: Cost is perhaps the biggest hurdle for some, especially if you graduate with $100,000 in student loans and your first job pays only $30,000 a year. How can we roll back the price of a college education — or at least keep it from being prohibitively expensive?
A: I think students need to look carefully at what they think they can handle from a debt perspective. Taking on $100,000 in loans is not wise for most people — and it is certainly not typical! A recent study shows that fewer than 1 in 4 college graduates in the U.S. have debt exceeding $30,500. Average student debt at private colleges in 2010 was a bit more than $27,000, and average debt for graduates of public universities was slightly more than $21,000.
With regard to price, according to the College Board, net tuition and fees at private colleges actually fell 4.1% when adjusted for inflation over the last five years. Many colleges and universities have been very focused on keeping their costs down while maintaining educational quality. And, of course, many colleges offer financial aid packages that help to make a college education affordable.
Q: Does a shift to more vocational training make more sense in today’s tough market? And is that the job of four-year colleges or other institutions like community colleges, or even high schools?
A: One of the great things about American higher education is the diversity of programs that are available. Students who are interested in a particular type of vocational or technical training can receive that at institutions with that particular mission. However, other students may want a broader-based educational experience that develops skills that translate across a variety of career paths.
Q: I’m going to get you in trouble here, but I have to ask: Are there just some young people who are not cut out for college but enroll because they feel they have to or because they simply don’t know what’s next?
A: I don’t think everyone is ready for college immediately following their graduation from high school. Some might work full-time, and some might work part-time and take some courses online or at a local community college. However, I worry that some young people don’t go to college because they’re not sure exactly what they want to do professionally. However, it’s a rare 18-year-old who knows exactly where she or he is headed professionally. College provides the opportunity to students to sort that out, to test their interest in certain subject areas and to be exposed to areas they might not have known about before.
Q: While talking heads continue to raise the question of whether college is worth it, are you seeing any evidence that a negative attitude toward college is becoming a prominent mind-set for today’s actual student body?
A: Not at Gettysburg College! We had over 5,600 applications for 720 spots in our first-year class this fall, and we had a 2% increase in yield. That is, more students accepted our invitation to come to Gettysburg than did the year before.
Q: If you could wave a magic wand and make one change for the landscape of higher education in America, what would it be?
A: That’s easy. I would make it so that everyone who wanted a college education could go to the kind of college they want without worrying about cost.
Q: Anything else you think readers and their college-aged kids should know?
A: Prospective college students and their families should not determine college choice based solely on published tuition price. Instead, they should consult with a college’s financial aid office to see what might be available in terms of financial aid. This year, Gettysburg College devoted about $45 million in institutional funds toward financial assistance to students in order to make a Gettysburg education accessible. About two-thirds of our students receive some form of financial assistance.
Disclosure: Alyssa Oursler is a graduate of Gettysburg College.