The Unrecognized Costs of a College Education?

For the past four decades, if not longer, Americans have been told in more ways than one that a college education is the way for a young person to get ahead, in fact, just about the only way. In 2009, 70% of all high school graduates entered college, an all-time high. Today, the figure is around 66%… but only a little more than half of those who enter college actually graduate.

The cost of higher education may be one factor for the recent decline, given that, over the past forty years, college costs to students have risen at an average rate of seven percent per year, roughly twice the rate of inflation. Part of the reason is that state colleges and universities have passed on more and more of the costs to students and their parents, and often neither can actually afford them.

The result? Forty-four million Americans have student loans. Almost 20% of those loans are in default, and the default rate is continuing to rise.

Why? The simple answer is that the former students can’t afford to repay the loans, suggesting that they don’t make enough money to cover both living expenses and loan repayments. That’s one reason why many recent graduates are still living with their parents.

One of the reasons is that, as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, there aren’t as many jobs out there requiring a college degree – and thus providing the income necessary to pay off substantial loans – as there are graduates seeking those jobs.

Yet education remains “the answer.”

I won’t try to address all the occupations where this is a problem, just one area that I know something about – fiction writing. When and where I graduated from college, there were few degree programs in creative/fiction writing. I could and did take several semesters of creative writing, but had a double major in economics and political science. Today, Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) programs in creative writing have proliferated. The first M.F.A. program was established at the University of Iowa in 1936. By 1994, there were 64. By last year, according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, there were 381 M.A. or M.F.A. programs in creative writing. Annually, some 3,000 plus students a year graduate with such a degree.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) currently states there are 145,900 “writers and authors” in the U.S., a quarter of them are part-timers, and 56% of them make less than $12,000 annually, which would place them below the federal poverty level for a single person. This isn’t especially surprising, given that Nielson Bookscan reported that of 1.2 million books tracked, only 25,000 — barely more than 2 percent — sold more than 5,000 copies. At current prices and royalty rates, selling 5,000 copies will generate between $12,500 and $15,000 – spread over two years at a minimum. Also consider the fact that, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the average book sells less than 500 copies.

There are roughly 1,900 members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and less than 10% of them make more than about $30,000 annually, according to a former officer of the association. Noted F&SF editor and author Eric Flint once estimated that only 32 F&SF authors in the U.S. earned a consistent comfortable income, presumably an income above the median family income of $55,000.

Under these circumstances, for how many M.F.A. graduates is the degree really worth the cost? And this isn’t just a problem for would-be authors, but for more than a few other fields, as well. I just happen to know the numbers for writers better.

According to the BLS, there are roughly 800,000 employed lawyers in the U.S. today, and those who are employed make an average of $118,000… BUT the BLS also states that every year there are more unemployed law school graduates because the number of graduates is greater than the number of new positions created. This is also true in higher education, where the job market is so tight in most fields that educators with doctorates from good universities can only find part-time positions as adjuncts.

Such numbers also raise another question. Given the increasing costs of higher education, isn’t insisting on a college education risking becoming another form of economic segregation, potentially bankrupting those with heavy loans who don’t win the “jobs lottery,” not to mention offering unrealistic hopes to far too many young people?

5 thoughts on “The Unrecognized Costs of a College Education?”

  1. I largely agree with you, but for some disciplines college degrees are still likely to lead to good jobs, notably computer science. I think the same is true for several other fields, perhaps mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and nursing.

    Hopefully the creative writing graduates have at least learned to write well, a skill that might help them as they search for jobs other than being the next J. K. Rowling….

  2. tweell says:

    In IT, specialized certifications are more valuable than a CS degree. That certification says you know a particular program or line of equipment, while the CS professors are usually at least a decade out of date. I have worked in IT for over half my life and do not have a degree (but many certifications). My neighbor does independent contracting as a programmer, and has a CS degree, but told me that the summer he spent getting his certification for SQL did more for his employment than the 4 years of college.

    1. Tim says:

      When I graduated way back when, I had a degree in Physics and found a job in IT quite quickly. It turned out that the employer wanted general scientists and not computer science graduates, so that they could be taught the IBM way. They also wanted ex military for the same reason. And it worked as we lapped up the training rather than comparing it unfavourably with what we had been taught an university.

      That was some time back and things have changed. Nowadays these openings no longer exist and specialism is the way forward. Also, here in the UK, much IT work is offshored to countries who charge less per hour, but seem to use more people and then base numbers of them back in the UK on expenses! Net gain is less than it should.

      Glad I am retired.

      PS. I could not believe that SQL merits an cerification! MIcrosoft Development cerification however is very difficult at the high levels.

  3. JakeB says:

    I’m put in mind also of that excellent book of Matthew Crawford’s from a few years ago, _Shop Class as Soulcraft_, where he observes that there are many blue-collar occupations, such as mechanic or plumber, that are as remunerative as white-collar occupations and also frequently much more satisfying. His observation was just that for many young people, the likelihood was that trade school or an apprenticeship would be a better life choice than college in any case.

    I agree with Mary, although, oddly it’s also true that the closely related profession of sysadmin doesn’t require a college education. What really counts is knowledge; and things like certifications in red hat are more valuable than a B.S.

  4. Tom says:

    So what does can an employer, who wants to hire a person who is willing and able to use their brain, use as education level when reviewing job applications? Except for specialist positions, this is the person most employers are searching for.

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