Can We Place a Price Tag on the Value of an Education?

The question “is higher education worth it?” has received considerable media attention lately, partly because of the recently released book Is College Worth It?: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education. According to authors Dr. William J. Bennett and David Wilezol, the answer is only in certain circumstances. Current student debt load is more than $1 trillion, with the looming possibility of interest rates doubling, leading many to wonder if student loans are becoming a second housing bubble. Unemployment and underemployment in young adults, including among college graduates, continues to be worryingly high, dispelling the belief that higher education is a golden ticket to a better life.

PayScale.com has an extensive database where they calculate the so-called “Return on Investment” of a college education. It was disconcerting to see the school I received my master’s degree from ranked 250th, outside of the realm of what Bennett considers “worth it.” Even more dismal is the 982nd rank of my undergraduate institution, with a negative return on investment over a 30 year period, despite its regular appearance in the book Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges.

Despite the fact that I have a master’s degree (albeit in a liberal arts field with a high rate of unemployment), I currently work a handful of near-minimum wage jobs and live below the poverty line. Yet the above data makes me cringe because it suggests that there is nothing to be gained from higher education beyond a paycheck.

Because of my college education, I have travelled to over 30 countries (many times on others’ dimes) for study abroad, internships, volunteer commitments, conferences and consultancies. I have played a small part in working to overcome one of the greatest public health and human rights issues in history, and worked myself out of a job (in a good way). I have a greater appreciation for literature, the fine arts, science and diverse world religions. I find it impossible to put a price tag on all of this.

However, I do see some validity in the concerns about the tremendous growth of student loan debt. I couldn’t have made it through school without taking out some student loans, yet I bargained with the financial aid offices at both schools I attended to only take out half the amount of loans I was offered, which is what I determined I actually needed. Throughout most of my college career, I typed all of my papers on library computers, went without a car, worked a variety of odd jobs, attended hundreds of extra-curricular events that promised free food, and subsisted on a diet of ramen noodles when not partaking in a meal involving free food. After graduation, I continued to penny-pinch so I could pay off my student loans early. To me, becoming debt free has been just as big of an accomplishment as the degrees I hold.

Last week on my blog, I mentioned that I was currently pondering a major career decision. Despite all the slack that higher education is taking recently, I am contemplating going back to school to become a registered dietician. I have seemed to reach a dead-end in my current career path, nutrition and health promotion have been passions of mine for a long time, and according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, dietician is listed as one of the best careers of 2013. I have found an accredited distance education program that would allow me to work full-time while going to school full-time, so that I will hopefully not have to take out any more student loans. I have begun the process of gathering paperwork to have my transcripts evaluated, the first step in this new academic journey.

It is impossible to know in advance what the “return on investment” of this pursuit will be, but it seems that in life there are many risks worth taking.

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2 Responses to Can We Place a Price Tag on the Value of an Education?

  1. desperatelyseekingspock says:

    This is a great post, Becky! I’ve been reading a lot about the so-called “return on investment” of undergraduate degrees lately, and I think it’s worthwhile to point out benefits of a degree that aren’t necessarily monetary. On the other hand, maybe I’m just feeling defensive because I have a double major in two of the subjects that make the top 10 worst college majors (literature & philosophy).

  2. A.M.B. says:

    I don’t want to return to the days when a college education was available to a select few, but it does seem like our current situation, in which a college degree has become the new high school degree, is very problematic. Far too many people are graduating with expensive degrees that will never help them get a job. There are non-monetary benefits of a college education, but are those benefits worth six figures of debt? A less expensive public school, community college, or a trade school might be better alternatives. (By the way, I haven’t read Bennett’s book, and while I find the outline of his argument appealing, I find it unlikely that he and I would agree on the finer points).

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