TOPICS > Economy

Is a College Diploma Worth the Soaring Student Debt?

May 27, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
As a growing number of students suffer soaring college debt, many questions are being raised about the value of higher education amid meager job prospects in a struggling economy. Jeffrey Brown gets four views on whether today's diplomas are worth the cost.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, assessing the value of a college education.

It’s an old question being debated anew in these difficult economic times. We taped our discussion yesterday and began with some background.

It’s the time of year for happy graduates and exhortations about the future.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You have been given the power, through your education, to pursue what you’re good at.

JEFFREY BROWN: For many new and recent grads entering a very tough labor market, these are also nervous times…

DAVID COOK, college graduate: All right, babe, I love you.

JEFFREY BROWN: … as our Paul Solman heard last winter from 2008 anthropology graduate David Cook, who was washing trash cans to pay his bills.

DAVID COOK: I just feel like I devoted years of my life and thousands of dollars into developing specialized skills that I’m not using.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some recent studies support the anecdotal evidence.

Rutgers University researchers reported that the median starting salary for a graduate of a four-year institution actually shrank in recent years from $30,000 to $27,000. The same survey found that fewer than 60 percent of the 2010 graduating class held a job this past spring.

Labor economist Andrew Sum:

ANDREW SUM, Northeastern University: Nearly half of all young college graduates — I’m talking about B.A. holders under — 25 and under — only half of them are working in a job that requires a college degree. The rest of them are working in jobs that either don’t — do not require a degree or are not working at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: Longer-term trends have also added to graduates’ financial burdens, including, of course, the continuing rise in the cost of attending college and the accompanying rise of student debt.

The average debt level for graduates has risen to more than $23,000, a jump from nearly $19,000 in 2004. But there is some solace for students. Over the long term, for example, a typical college graduate nets half-a-million dollars more throughout his or her career than those with only a high school diploma. And amid the recession, the unemployment rate for college graduates was half that of those who just made it through high school.

And we take a look now at some of these questions about the value of the four-year college experience with Michael Roth, president of the Wesleyan University, Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and “Things I’ve Been Silent About.” She’s a professor of culture and literature at Johns Hopkins University. Peter Thiel is co-founder of PayPal, as well as an investor and philanthropist. He heads the Thiel Foundation, which awards fellowships to young entrepreneurs outside the traditional academic framework. And Richard Vedder is an economist at Ohio University and the head of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

Michael Roth, I’m going to start with you and put it very simply. Is college still a good investment?

MICHAEL ROTH, Wesleyan University: College is a great investment. And it works so well for so many.

America has built the greatest university sector in the world. And we have our challenges, because that sector has changed dramatically because of change in access, changes in the economy and culture.

But what has made that sector great is we have given students an opportunity to discover what they want to do, what they’re good at, get better at it, and then find a way to keep doing that work after college.

We have to be transparent about the work we do. We have to evaluate it critically. But I think it’s a big mistake to retreat from college education in the name of more specialized or technical or entrepreneurial fantasies, because that sector of research, exploration and learning has served us well and it can serve us well in the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and, Peter Thiel, you have raised a warning over what you call an education bubble, which is on the analogy, I guess, of the housing bubble or the tech bubble. Explain what you mean and what you’re worried about.

PETER THIEL, The Thiel Foundation: Yes.

Well, we have a bubble in education. The costs have escalated by 300 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 1980. The quality has not gone up. So, we’re paying more and more for the same product. And it is something that is a bubble because it’s intensely believed.

It’s taboo to question education and to ask whether people are really getting their money’s worth. And it’s very analogous to the housing bubble. People are told that you have to have an education, it’s indispensable, it’s always valuable. We have subprime education, like we had subprime housing. But it probably is a system that’s gotten to be quite rotten all the way up.

I do not agree that — I do not say that everyone should drop out of college or stop out, but I do not think that it is the right thing for everybody. I think there are people who are inventors. There are people who are entrepreneurs. And for them, it makes sense to start contributing to society whenever they come up with the great ideas that will change the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

PETER THIEL: And so I think we should respect the diversity that exists in our society and say that — and realize that some people should go to college, even when it’s overpriced, and others should choose a different path earlier.

JEFFREY BROWN: Azar Nafisi, what do you think is the right way to think about this question of a return on a college education?

AZAR NAFISI, Johns Hopkins University: Well, there are some investments which are material, and you can count them in dollars and cents. But I think that they have a direct relationship to the quality of education.

I mean, rather than just talking about investment in money terms, we should — universities become sort of like canaries in the mine for a culture. They become the sort of standard of where a culture is going. The dynamism, the originality of these entrepreneurial — entrepreneurial experiences, the fact that a society allows people to be original, to take risks, all of it comes from a passionate love of knowledge.

And universities represent all the different areas and fields within a society. And the students and faculty come from all these fields. This is a community that represents the best that a society has to offer. And there was a mention of our universities being the best in the world.

You notice that when certain countries, like China, reach a stage of economic and technological development, the first thing they do is, they try to expand their knowledge and they come to us to create liberal arts college.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Richard Vedder, you’re looking at it through an economic analysis. What does it tell you about pros and cons of today’s education?

RICHARD VEDDER, Center for College Affordability and Productivity: Well I think Peter had it about right. There are a lot of people for whom college is not only a good investment, but probably a very satisfying experience for life. Remember, also, college has a socialization function associated with it, as well as a pure learning function or even an investment function.

But, beyond — but the reality is, is there is a growing disconnect between what the labor market is telling us on the one hand and what college enrollments are on the other.

By one way of measuring things, using U.S. Government Bureau of Labor statistics data, as much as one out of — as many as one out of three college graduates today are in jobs that previously or historically have been filled by people with lesser educations, jobs that do not require higher-level learning skills, critical thinking skills, or writing skills or anything of that nature.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael Roth, respond to that. The argument is that something is out of whack between the academy and the market that we’re sending these people into.

MICHAEL ROTH: Well, I find it just puzzling that someone would argue that the fact that our work force is more educated than it was 20 years ago is a bad thing.

I think the rhetoric of a bubble is just that. I think it’s — it’s rhetoric and a poor analogy, although I agree that college and universities are not for everyone. And there are lots of different kinds of colleges and universities in the United States. Wesleyan is a liberal arts school. We have a certain kind of curriculum that appeals to certain kinds of students.

My oldest son went to a community college before he figured out what he was going to do in the next two years. And that was a great experience for him. And he needed it. And it worked well for him and he found a way to navigate through that.

So, I am all in favor of the diversity of the American education system. But I — I am skeptical of this language of a bubble. I think, buyer, beware. There are a lot of schools out there that aren’t transparent about what they do, who have bad graduation rates.

But I don’t think it’s in our interest as a democracy to say in advance who should go to college or what kind of job requires you to have an education that is both about culture, citizenship and about skill level.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Peter Thiel, respond to that. Are you saying that?

PETER THIEL: Well, I don’t think it’s all about the finances and the money. But when are you asking people to take on a quarter-million of debt for a four-year college or $100,000 in debt to go to a culinary institute…

MICHAEL ROTH: But most people don’t do that.

PETER THIEL: … and the costs have escalated like this, you have to start asking these hard questions.

And it seems to me that the rhetoric that education is an absolute good sounds just like the rhetoric we heard about the housing bubble six years ago, where everyone needs shelter, everyone should buy a house. That may be true, but you should — you should be very careful of the price.

PETER THIEL: One of the ways in which it’s worse than the housing situation is that you cannot get out of your school debts. If you make a mistake and you borrow money, you cannot — get away from the house and have the bank — like, you can get the bank to foreclose on the house. You’re basically stuck with it even through bankruptcy.

Bush — President Bush changed the laws in 2005 to basically make a school debt not expugnable in bankruptcy. So, it’s the kind of mistake that if people make, and if you’re wrong, and it turns out education is a bubble, you are putting — you are putting a debt on these — on the next generation that they will be spending decades paying off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another — Azar Nafisi, another piece of this, of course, is the particular values of — and we heard it raised a little — the arts and humanities vs. engineering, business, where we funnel or what we emphasize for students.

AZAR NAFISI: I think that they complement one another.

That young innovator whom I saw on CNN this morning who is getting a fellowship from Thiel Foundation to drop out of college and go and, you know, work on his invention, he needs to connect to the society. Human relations become very important.

Look at the crisis we’re facing today. It is not just a financial crisis. It’s a crisis in vision. Look at the foreign policy. Foreign policy — what happened in Egypt, what happened in Iran wasn’t just about Twitter. It was about a concrete situation on the ground of what was happening to those people.

And where do you get the knowledge, genuine knowledge, to know about Egypt, about Iran, about China, about America? You get that from the universities. Where else do you go?

I mean, this country was based on that vision. Its first president said that he had the dream of creating a national university on the capital because of the fact that humanity is about being human. Why do I want to make money? In order to enjoy and expand myself as a human being.

My daughter is in debt right now because she’s going to med school. That doesn’t mean that she wants to give up med school. That means that there is something wrong with a system that cannot afford its children access to education.

Not everybody should go to universities, but everybody should have the right and access to education. And education is not housing, by the way. We cannot look at it in a utilitarian way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me — well, Richard Vedder, you can come back on this. That utilitarian…

RICHARD VEDDER: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead.

RICHARD VEDDER: An interesting point was raised there.

There is another dimension that hasn’t been mentioned. And that is 40 percent, 45 percent of the students who enter traditional four-year university or college education don’t graduate. And I don’t mean in four years. I mean in six years.

So, there’s an enormous amount of risks being taken by a lot of students, and a lot of those risks relate to the fact that colleges and universities are often admitting students who they full well know have a limited probability of success, but they take them in anywhere.

This is not the Wesleyans of the world. Wesleyan is a high-quality university, an elite private school. But many, many other schools have very, very high dropout rates. And that’s another dimension of this that hasn’t been picked up in all this talk about truth and beauty and having people learn about Egyptian civilization.

I’m all for everyone learning about Egyptian civilization. But 40 — two out of five students who enter college don’t make it through.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but in the brief time we have left, Michael Roth, you start.

What would you like to see happen, just brief prescription that you would like for higher education now?

MICHAEL ROTH: Well, I would like to see the students who are going into higher education be better prepared, so they could participate in the intellectual cross-training that higher education should provide, so that, when they graduate, they have the skills to do many different things that are connected to what we need in this culture and society. And I think, on that, we probably all agree.

JEFFREY BROWN: Peter Thiel?

PETER THIEL: I believe that we would — we shouldn’t be denigrating work, at the expense of credentialed learning.

And we have this bimodal thing where you’re either in the ivory tower or you’re relegated to the coal mines. And I think that there’s something about work that can be ennobling, that can be meaningful, and that can be a way for people to work in teams and contribute to our society. And we shouldn’t dismiss that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Azar Nafisi.

AZAR NAFISI: I agree with him completely.

And that is why I think that that shouldn’t be such a gap between work and education. They go — they go hand in hand. In order to appreciate work, in order to allow innovation, you need education. You need knowledge. You need passion.

This — it is like the blood in your veins. You don’t see it, but, without it, you can’t live. So we need both of them. Why do we have to choose? That is one thing that I don’t understand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, because, I mean, — we’re at a time of choices, right?

AZAR NAFISI: And we need to — we need to reform the system of universities. We need to be more critical of what we have been doing and what we are doing. We need to update ourselves in order to allow people like Peter Thiel and his students and his young men and women to be able to expand the knowledge, expand the research.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Richard Vedder, do you think we’re in a time of choices?

RICHARD VEDDER: I think we’re in a period where we have to make choices. I think the choices are harder and harder to make.

The cost of college is rising relative to the benefits of college. We haven’t even talked about learning outcomes. There’s a good bit of evidence that learning outcomes are stagnant or falling in this country, at the very same time that costs are rising.

I agree totally with Peter. We need to open up opportunities for people to consider a variety of different options after high school, one of which is college, but there are many others. And maybe we need to think of new ways of certifying people to demonstrate competence for the — what some people call the world of work or the world after college.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, very big subject, and we will leave it there, but try to come back to these things.

Richard Vedder, Azar Nafisi, Peter Thiel, Michael Roth, thank you, all four, very much.

RICHARD VEDDER: Thank you.

AZAR NAFISI: Thank you.

MICHAEL ROTH: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we want you to know we will be hosting a live chat with several members of Jeff’s panel next Tuesday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

You can submit your questions now or join us live at NewsHour.PBS.org.