Despite Growing Public Doubt, Data Show College Is Worth It

Few topics have inspired more hand-wringing and hair-pulling in recent years than the cost of college. Phrases like “return on investment,” “time to degree,” and the dreaded “student debt crisis” have become mainstays in the higher education debate. These ideas are often adopted, scorned, or studied by centers and think tanks, sometimes as a outgrowth of a group’s existing ideological or political bent, sometimes simply in order to keep up with a topic that’s become increasingly hyped as tuition rises nationwide and student loan debt surpasses credit card debt.

Yesterday, it became clear that everyone—from parents to sitting presidents—is concerned about the issue and that it has seeped into the public’s view of higher education, at least in Texas. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll shows a rapid decline in the perception of a college education among registered Texas voters. According to the Tribune:

Only 28 percent said a college education is necessary for a person to succeed in today’s work world, while 68 percent said “there are many ways to succeed … without a college degree.” That’s a big change from the UT/TT Poll of May 2010, when 42 percent called college necessary and 56 percent said there are other paths to success.

The challenges of applying, attending, graduating from, and paying for college are certainly affecting public opinion. It could even be affecting enrollment. In 2013, college enrollment was down for the first time since 2006, according to the Wall Street Journal. Many people no doubt pine for the days when college, especially at a large state university like UT, was comparatively cheap.

Many practical things, however, have affected the price tag for a college education. UT has seen record numbers of applications in recent years. Yet squeezed between a growing state population and Texas’ Top 10 percent Law, the flagship university has hovered around the same total enrollment. It simply can’t get much bigger, especially not without incurring the massive costs associated with hiring new faculty and building new buildings. New buildings, for example, must come from philanthropy or from the legislature through an unreliable mechanism called tuition revenue bonds that failed to make it through the legislature in 2011 and 2013. The legislature has also appropriated less and less state funding to UT over the years, forcing the university to look elsewhere, including at tuition, though the UT System Board of Regents has temporarily frozen any increases at UT-Austin. Add to that the cost of living in America’s fastest growing city, and it’s easy to see how prices continue to climb.

While more and more Texans insist there are many ways to succeed without a college degree—which is certainly not false—businesses continue to demand that their employees earn degrees before joining the workforce. Even if it’s possible to succeed without a degree, it’s fair to ask whether getting one is too costly.

The answer, both in Texas and across the country, is clear. College is still worth it, without a doubt. That’s where “return on investment” comes in. Last month, the New York Times, citing fresh economic data, told readers that it was not just worth it to finish college, it’s “not even close.”

The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else reached a record high last year, according to the new data, which is based on an analysis of Labor Department statistics by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. That’s up from 89 percent five years earlier, 85 percent a decade earlier and 64 percent in the early 1980s.

There is nothing inevitable about this trend. If there were more college graduates than the economy needed, the pay gap would shrink. The gap’s recent growth is especially notable because it has come after a rise in the number of college graduates, partly because many people went back to school during the Great Recession. That the pay gap has nonetheless continued growing means that we’re still not producing enough of them.

So not only is the cost of college well worth it for those who can and do enroll and graduate, the real problem is that not enough people are doing so. Producing more graduates has been the focal point for state and federal education policy in recent years. While debt continues to spiral, policymakers have focused on incentivizing on-time graduation. Outcomes-based funding, or connecting state appropriations to student success metrics, has floated around the legislature for years, but never been put into action in Texas. The New York Times Magazine even delved into UT’s efforts in a recent cover story, and UT has committed to raising the undergraduate graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016.

The first step toward changing public perceptions about college might just be convincing people—or more specifically convincing Texans—that college isn’t just worth the cost, but that it’s a viable option in the first place.


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