Forbes - College Acceptance Letters Out But Are You In For The Debt?

Cofounder and CEO of StudyBlue

What is a college education truly worth? The answer lies somewhere between learning for learning’s sake and vocational training. But the days of considering a $250k Yale degree useful are quickly vanishing.

Ivy League acceptance emails just went out this week. Thousands have waited anxiously to find out if they were in the lucky 6-14% of applicants getting the nod. But in the wake of post-acceptance euphoria is the sobering reality of annual fees of up to $69,600, in the case of Harvard. The average student debt is quickly approaching $30,000 while the unemployment rate for young grads is at an unsettlingly high 8.5%.

With these statistics in mind, the purpose of attending college — if at all — is increasingly questioned. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel famously pays students to leave school to pursue entrepreneurial projects. A recent Wall Street Journal study suggests the pressure of rising debt and a weak job market is prompting students to declare majors earlier and shift toward “practical” subjects such as health or law enforcement. In response to this increasingly popular view of higher education as job preparation, another camp has championed the renewed importance of college in “developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human,” according to one UNC English professor.

We can’t discount cultural enrichment, but choosing a major simply for that reason is a luxury. As tuition soars out of reach for many families, it’s worth considering the tangible — and intangible — returns of a degree. Higher education should equip us both with tangible skills and the critical thinking to identify practical situations in which to apply these skills. College is still worth something — just not decades of debt for a brand name diploma.

A case for college: the numbers

In light of skyrocketing tuition, the natural place to start is measurable value. We celebrate dropouts-turned-billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg, but the average four-year college graduate still earns more over a lifetime than the average high school graduate — a record high of 98% more an hour in 2013, according to one study. On an individual level, those with college degrees see higher earnings than if they had only graduated high school.

Of course, these across-the-board gains vary by school. A recent Payscale ranking of colleges by return on investment gives the top spot to Harvey Mudd College, a private liberal arts college in California. Alumni can expect to see a return of $985,300 over twenty years (four years cost $237,700). The top 15 contains the usual suspects — Stanford, MIT, Princeton — but there’s a strong presence of public schools too. The Colorado School of Mines, Georgia Institute of Technology and Missouri University of Technology all cost less than half of Harvard, but have twenty-year returns of over $100,000 more. It’s a testament to the fact that major — not school — choice is the more valuable factor in justifying tangible ROI.

The intangibles

Just as important as college’s quantitative returns are the intangible ones, from valuable employee skills such as critical thinking and interpersonal relations to socioeconomic benefits. In today’s highly competitive workforce, job mobility is especially salient. A recent Jobvite study found the vast percentage of “high mobility” workers who readily change jobs to meet market demand have college educations. Rather than prepare students for single careers, college broadens the range of jobs and careers today’s graduates will have.

Many of the traits of high mobility workers are ingrained in students over the course of their college years. There are experiences, both in the classroom and the dorm, that a thirteen-week code camp can’t replicate. A diverse collection of peers and ideas demand critical thinking, interpersonal relations and working towards expectations, to name a few.

Is it worth the cost?

Considering higher education’s value-adds, from tangible ROI to job and social mobility, there’s still an important question to be asked. Is a college degree worth going into debt? Not in my experience.

As a high school senior interested in biomedical engineering, I was accepted by Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Wisconsin. Johns Hopkins’ program was ranked sixth in the nation, but annual tuition cost roughly $26,000 (now $47,000). Wisconsin — which offered me early acceptance to medical school — was ranked tenth. It cost $3,200 (now $8,650). Both schools had top-notch faculty and facilities. Was a difference of four spots in rankings worth an extra $22,800 a year, not including room and board? Not to me. I chose Wisconsin, where I discovered computer science. I graduated debt-free with an idea for a mobile learning app that grew into StudyBlue. I used the coding skills I learned to make a living, but also applied my speech and debate skills to raise funding and make connections.

I can’t think of any jobs guaranteed by a $250,000 degree from a “brand name” school. According to CEO Dan Finnegan, Jobvite found that of the top twenty schools sending the most graduates to Silicon Valley companies, only four are private. San Jose State tops the list ahead of Stanford or Carnegie Mellon.

When this year’s high school seniors graduate in 2019, I hope college will have taught them both thoughtfulness and pragmaticism. I hope they’ll know that a computer science major can become fluent in code or conceive an idea for the next great app. But she can — and should — also know Shakespeare, if not in the classroom then perhaps in a campus production or a conversation with classmates. An English major can become fluent in sonnets or novels. But he can — and should — also be able to write for different demographics or find stories from a set of data. And neither one needs to pay $250,000 to do it.

Chris Klundt is the cofounder and CEO of StudyBlue, an online studying platform allowing students to create flashcards and upload and share study materials. Follow @RealKlue