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Friday, September 14, 2012

Dear Abby: Is It Worth It?

Newsweek is asking us all a big question:

Is college a lousy investment?

Which prompted a reader to ask me a big question:

Abby, do you think college is a lousy investment?

This is not a new debate, and lots of experts have already chimed in with their thoughts. Including experts like Paula Abdul. Naturally, I'm intimidated to dip my toe into waters she's already bathed in. But I'll do it. 

My answer? It depends.

What? I'm a lawyer. I went to three years of graduate school to learn that answer.

The debate has been reheated in the microwave of our collective economic angst because of a sad reality: More and more kids are graduating from college with ever-mounting student loan debt, and many of those same kids cannot find a job. College graduates are being welcomed into that real world they were all so excited about when MTV filmed it. Unfortunately, their welcome party is hosted by their parents, takes place in their childhood bedroom, and features activities like Applying at Applebee's and Saving on Rent to Pay Loans.

When I was in college, way back at the turn of the millennium, everyone basked in the relatively safe assumption that we'd be gainfully occupied upon graduation. Maybe it'd be with an entry-level job, but it'd be a job. Maybe we'd go to graduate school, but it'd be to ensure an above-entry-level job after those extra years of schooling. Maybe we'd catapult directly into the banking/finance world, but it'd be to invent value-less commodities and make obscene amounts of money fast so that our grant-writing friends felt even worse about themselves. There was a silver lining to even the worst-of-cases scenarios.

The implicit safety net we all played above allowed us to indulge in the college experience. Sure, most of us went to classes, and sure, some of us joined a club or volunteered every other Wednesday in the Admissions Office. But we could also waste time and explore alternate states of being with the luxury of only worrying about whether our parents or campus police would eventually discover that the "mall" in question wasn't the one where the monuments are, or that "chem-free" was code for "chem-full."

That's not to say that student loan debt was a stranger to the college scene in the days of yore.  Of course it wasn't.  In fact, it was prevalent then as well.  The difference, I think, was that we could (a) find a job to help support ourselves/work down bits and pieces of the debt during college; and (b) rest assured that whatever debt remained after graduation could be chipped away at over time. Because we'd have a job with a paycheck that was big enough for us to live off and to make our monthly interest payments.

The system clearly appears to be broken. As the Newsweek article so exceptionally suggests, the system depends on the consuming public -- ie. parents and their school-age children -- believing in the maxim that everyone needs a college education. Just like we all used to believe that everyone should own a home. Which has worked out just great.

The college-is-a-must mentality has allowed institutions of higher education to take advantage of their captive audience. Add to that the competitiveness of the marketplace, with colleges now looking more like places for spa treatments and parades and less like places for classrooms and office hours. Now add to that the presumptive availability of public and private loans to subsidize these 4-year vacations, and you've got the perfect storm.  Eighteen-year-olds who are dying to enjoy the freedom of paradise, parents who think they're child abusers if they don't allow for the experience, and strangers who are more than happy to foot the bill and then collect on the interest payments for decades thereafter.

All of which allows for schools to continue to raise their tuitions without accounting for the increases to anyone. Tenured professors make hundreds of thousands while grad assistants teach the classes, football teams travel in horse-drawn chariots, and there's Wi-Fi access at the top of the rock-climbing wall in the gym. Come for the on-campus dining, stay for the laundry service, leave for the unemployment lines! Don't say you would trade that lifetime of memories for that lifetime of debt!

The uh-oh moment is upon is. Students (and their parents) can no longer blindly accept the steep and rising costs of higher education, because students (and their parents) can no longer temper their steep and rising panic with visions of employment dancing in our heads. One would hope that would mean the schools would stop blindly letting their costs increase, only to pass the bill along to the student consumer. I am not holding my breath.

Despite the dire and frustrating picture I've sketched, I still think college is an investment that should be made. Recent high school graduates are faring much worse than recent college graduates in today's economy; the unemployment figures for the former are much higher than those for the latter. Blue-collar jobs that don't care whether you've taken the Pain of Plato are harder and harder to come by. Jobs that demand technical acumen or a health-services background are on the rise. And those require schooling beyond the twelfth grade.

To make college a good investment, though, the investors need to be smarter. They need to work harder for their returns. They need to think about what they want those returns to be before they leap in.

By that, I mean that I do not think college can be approached as a vacation where you sometimes pull an all-nighter cramming (knowledge, not alcohol). I think students need to enter college with some idea about what they want to do on the other side. I think they need to take the classes, look for the internships, and participate in the extracurricular activities that will get them there. I think they need to stop playing Madden 13 and they need to step away from Ellen. I think they need to consider options beyond the "traditional" 4-year structure, and honestly evaluate whether they are best suited for a vocational degree or a community college program. I think we all need to agree that higher education is whatever schooling you do after high school, and includes a lot more than Harvard.

More positively, I think students need to appreciate the opportunity that college affords them. I know that I did not do this. I approached college much too casually. It was a mistake, and I regret it.

I would love to be able to have 4 years to do nothing but learn. I would love to write for and read with people smarter than me. I would love to reevaluate who I am, what I want to contribute, and how I might be able to do that in an environment designed to propel me in that direction. I think the college students of today would be so much better served by their college experience if they gave that attitude. . . . well, if they gave it the old college try.

Of course, there is no fail-safe way to ensure employment post-college, and plenty of recent college grads took the approach I encourage, yet find themselves without a job nonetheless. Of course, I'm speaking in broad generalities. Of course, the most my approach promises is that at least your investment will yield tangible returns beyond the Freshman 15.

I maintain, though, that if the investor isn't ready to answer the above questions or face that version of the real world, they shouldn't invest yet. They should get the job at Applebee's now, figure themselves out now, live with mom and dad now. Better to do it now, pre-investment, at 18, than to do it later, post-investment, at 22.

Every investment that is too easy, too good to be true, eventually bites someone in the pocket or the pride. Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Wall Street's sub-prime mortgage game. The Yankees. A real investment -- a reliable investment -- is meant to be made only after careful and informed consideration. An evaluation of the risk and reward, and a refined direction based on that calculus.

So yes, make the investment in higher education. Just do your homework beforehand. And then do your homework.



  1. Totally agree on all fronts. I also think it "depends"...and I also wish I could turn back the clock for a college do-over! Prob would re think that comm degree:)

  2. The old if I knew now what I knew then adage. More than anything I'd have chosen a less expensive school. But one thing I did know was to play dumb in the laundromat. Girls really ate that up. Now when I drop it off it's not as much fun to flirt with the 8-month pregnant woman at the front desk when I feel like I should be doing her laundry.