College Education Pros and Cons
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Is a College Education Worth It?
College Education
The debate over whether a college education is worth it may have begun when the colonists arrived from Europe and founded "New College" (later renamed Harvard University) in 1636. With 19.9 million US college students in 2013 and average student debt at over $26,500, the debate continues today.

People who argue that college is worth it contend that college graduates have higher employment rates, bigger salaries, and more work benefits than high school graduates. They say college graduates also have better interpersonal skills, live longer, have healthier children, and have proven their ability to achieve a major milestone.

People who argue that college is not worth it contend that the debt from college loans is too high and delays graduates from saving for retirement, buying a house, or getting married. They say many successful people never graduated from college and that many jobs, especially trades jobs, do not require college degrees. Read More...

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College Education ProCon.org is a nonpartisan, nonprofit website that presents research, studies, and pro and con statements on questions related to college education and its impact on society.
Did You Know?
  1. 19.9 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities in 2013, compared to 13.5 million in 1990, 7.9 million in 1970, and 2.7 million in 1949. [1, 2, 3]

  2. In 2011, 50% of US college graduates under 25 years old had no job or only a part-time job. [4]

  3. One in three college graduates had a job that only required a high school diploma or less in 2012, including more than 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders, and 115,000 janitors with bachelor's degrees. [5, 6]

  4. In Aug. 2013, approximately 6,900 accredited colleges and universities were operating in the United States, compared to 3,535 in 1990 and 1,851 in 1950. [7, 2]

  5. In Apr. 2013 the unemployment rate for college graduates over 25 years old was 3.6% compared to 7.5% for high school graduates. [8]
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Pro & Con Arguments: "Is a College Education Worth It?"
PRO College Education

  1. College graduates make more money. On average, a college graduate with a bachelor’s degree earned $30,000 more per year than a high school graduate, or about $500,000 more over a lifetime, as of Apr. 2013. [8] Earning an associate's degree (a 2-year degree) was worth about $170,000 more than a high school diploma over a lifetime in 2011. [9] The median income for families headed by a bachelor's degree holder was $100,096 in 2011—more than double than that for a family headed by a high school graduate. [10] The median increase in earnings for completing the freshman year of college was 11% and the senior year was 16% in 2007. [11] 85% of Forbes' 2012 America's 400 Richest People list were college grads. [12]


  2. More and more jobs require college degrees. During the recession between Dec. 2007 and Jan. 2010, jobs requiring college degrees grew by 187,000, while jobs requiring some college or an associate's degree fell by 1.75 million and jobs requiring a high school degree or less fell by 5.6 million. [13] Based on economy and job projections calculated by Georgetown University, in 2018, approximately 63% of jobs will require some college education or a degree. [14]


  3. College graduates have more and better employment opportunities. In Apr. 2013, the unemployment rate for college graduates aged 25 and over with a bachelor's degree was 3.6%, compared to 5.0% for associate's degree holders, 7.5% for high school graduates, and 11.4% for high school drop-outs. [8] College graduates are more likely to receive on-the-job formal (22.9%) or informal (17.2%) training, more access to technology, greater autonomy, and ability to enhance skills compared to high school graduates. [14] 58% of college graduates and people with some college or associate's degrees reported being "very satisfied" with their jobs compared to 50% of high school graduates and 40% of people without a high school diploma. [11]


  4. College graduates are more likely to have health insurance and retirement plans. 70% of college graduates had access to employer-provided health insurance compared to 50% of high school graduates in 2008. [15] 70% of college graduates 25 years old and older had access to retirement plans in 2008 compared to 65% of associate's degree holders, 55% of high school graduates, and 30% of people who did not complete high school. [11]


  5. Young adults learn interpersonal skills in college. Students have the opportunity to interact with other students and faculty, to join student organizations and clubs, and to take part in discussions and debates. According to Arthur Chickering's "Seven Vectors" student development theory, "developing mature interpersonal relationships" is one of the seven stages students progress through as they attend college. [16] Students ranked "interpersonal skills" as the most important skill used in their daily lives in a 1994 survey of 11,000 college students. [17] Vivek Wadhwa, MBA, technology entrepreneur and scholar, states, "American children party [in college]. But you know something, by partying, they learn social skills. They learn how to interact with each other…They develop skills which make them innovative. Americans are the most innovative people in the world because of the education system." [18]


  6. College graduates are healthier and live longer. 83% of college graduates reported being in excellent health, while 73% of high school graduates reported the same. [11] In 2008, 20% of all adults were smokers, while 9% of college graduates were smokers. [11] 63% of 25 to 34 year old college graduates reported exercising vigorously at least once a week compared to 37% of high school graduates. [11] College degrees were linked to lower blood pressure in a 30-year peer-reviewed study and lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) by a Carnegie Mellon Psychology department study. [15] In 2008, 23% of college graduates aged 35 to 44 years old were obese compared to 37% of high school graduates. [11] College graduates, on average, live six years longer than high school graduates. [19, 20]


  7. College graduates have lower poverty rates. The 2008 poverty rate for bachelor's degree holders was 4%, compared to a 12% poverty rate for high school graduates. [11] In 2005, married couples with bachelor's degrees were least likely to be below the poverty line (1.8%) compared to 2.7% of associate's degree holders, 4.6% of couples with some college, and 7.1% of high school graduates. [21] According to the US Census Bureau, 1% of college graduates participated in social support programs like Medicaid, National School Lunch Program, and food stamps compared to 8% of high school graduates in 2008. [11]


  8. The children of college graduates are healthier and more prepared for school. A Lancet medical journal study from 1970 to 2009 showed college graduates had lower infant mortality rates than high school graduates. [15] Mothers with only a high school education are 31% more likely to give birth to a low-birth-weight baby than a woman with a college degree. [11] Children aged 2 to 5 years old in households headed by college graduates have a 6% obesity rate compared to 14% for children in households headed by high school graduates. [11] 18% more children aged 3 to 5 years old with mothers who have a bachelor's degree could recognize all letters compared to children of high school graduates. [11] In 2010, 59% of children in elementary and middle school with at least one college graduate for a parent participated in after-school activities like sports, arts, and scouting compared 27% for high school graduate parents. [21]


  9. College graduates are more productive as members of society. Henry Bienan, PhD, President Emeritus of Northwestern University, argues that a college education results in "greater productivity, lower crime, better health, [and] better citizenship for more educated people." [22] A 2009 study found 16 to 24 year old high school drop-outs were 63% more likely to be incarcerated than those with a bachelor's degree or higher. [23] According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from Sep. 2008 to Sep. 2009, 43% of college graduates did volunteer work compared to 19% of high school graduates and 27% of adults in general. [11] In 2005, college graduates were more like to have donated blood in the past year (9%) than people with some college (6%), high school graduates (4%), and people who did not complete high school (2%). [21]


  10. College graduates attract higher-paying employers to their communities. A 1% increase in college graduates in a community increases the wages of workers without a high school diploma by 1.9% and the wages of high school graduates by 1.6%. [21]


  11. Learning is always worthwhile. According to Rebecca Mead, staff writer for The New Yorker, college teaches students "to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently;" all of which "are habits of mind…from which a letter carrier, no less than a college professor, might derive a sense of self-worth." [24] In 2011 74% of students said college helped them "grow intellectually" and 69% said college helped them grow and mature as people. [25] Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, MA, Visiting Professor at Eastern Nazarene College, argues, "The value of a liberal arts college education --to you, to employers-- is that you've spent four years in a place where you were forced to consider new ideas, to meet new people, to ask new questions, and to learn to think, to socialize, to imagine. If you graduate, you will get a degree, but if you are not a very different person from who are you are today, then college failed." [26]


  12. College allows students to explore career options. Colleges offer career services, internships, job shadowing, job fairs, and volunteer opportunities in addition to a wide variety of courses that may provide a career direction. Over 80% of college students complete internships before graduation, giving them valuable employment experience before entering the job market. [27]


  13. People who do not go to college are more likely to be unemployed and, therefore, place undue financial strain on society, making a college degree worth it to taxpayers. Young people "not engaged in employment/education or training," AKA NEET, are more likely to receive welfare than youth in general, they are more likely to commit crimes, and they are more likely to receive public health care, all costing the government extra money. In total, each NEET youth between the ages of 16 and 25 impose a $51,350 financial burden on society per year, and after the person is 25 he or she will impose a financial burden of $699,770. [28] The total cost of 6.7% of the US population being NEET youth is $4.75 trillion, which is comparable to half of the US public debt. [29]


  14. Colleges provide networking value. Harvard Business School estimates that 65 to 85% of jobs are acquired through networking. [30] College students can join fraternities and sororities, clubs, and teams as well as participate in a variety of social functions to meet new people and network with possible business connections. Internships offered through colleges often lead to mentors or useful contacts within a student's preferred field. Many colleges offer social media workshops, networking tips, career-related consultation, and alumni networks. [31]


  15. College education has a high return as an investment. Return on investment (ROI) is calculated by dividing the gain from an investment (here the money earned as a result of a college degree) by the cost of the investment (the money spent on a college degree). A college degree has a return of 15% per year as an investment, larger than the stock market (6.8%) and housing (0.4%). [32] Completing some college, but not earning a degree, resulted in a 9.1% return on investment. [8] If a student spent $17,860 (the average cost of tuition and room and board in 2012-2013 for four years at a public university [33]), that student could expect a 15% return of $2,679 each year. According to a 2011 Pew Research survey, 86% of college graduates believed college was a good personal investment. [25]


  16. College exposes students to diverse people and ideas. Students live, go to classes, and socialize with other students from around the world and learn from professors with a variety of expertise. The community of people on a college campus means students are likely to make diverse friends and business connections, and, potentially, find a spouse or mate. Access to a variety of people allows college students to learn about different cultures, religions, and personalities they may have not been exposed to in their home towns, which broadens their knowledge and perspective. In 2004, 79% of people with graduate degrees and 73% of college graduates thought it "very important to try to understand the reasoning behind the opinions of others" compared to 67% of associate degree holders, 64% of high school graduates, and 59% of high school drop-outs. [21]  


  17. Earning a college degree is a major life achievement. College graduation can represent an attainment of the American Dream, the culmination of years of hard work for the student, and the payoff for sacrifices made by supporting parents and friends. Blogger Darrius Mind wrote that his graduation day at Wilberforce University was, "probably the best day of my entire life. That was the day I finished my challenge to myself and also the day I made history in my family, it was the day I EARNED my college degree." [34]
CON College Education

  1. Student loan debt is crippling for college graduates. Between 2003 and 2012 the number of 25-year-olds with student debt increased from 25% to 43%, and their average loan balance was $20,326 in 2012--a 91% increase since 2003. [35] 10% of students graduate with over $40,000 in debt and about 1% have $100,000 in debt. [36] The average student borrower graduated in 2011 with $26,600 in debt. [36] According to the US Congress Joint Economic Committee, approximately 60% of 2011 college graduates have student loan debt balances equal to 60% of their annual income. [37] Missing or being late for loan payments often results in a lower credit score and additional fees, thus escalating the debt problem and potentially jeopardizing future purchases and employment. [36]


  2. Student loan debt often forces college graduates to live with their parents and delay marriage, financial independence, and other adult milestones. According to a 2012 Federal Reserve Study, 30-year-olds who have never taken out a student loan are now more likely to own homes than those who have taken out loans. Auto loans are also trending down at faster rates for those with student debt history than for those without. [35] In 2013, student loan borrowers delayed retirement saving (41%), car purchases (40%), home purchases (29%), and marriage (15%). [38] Less than 50% of women and 30% of men had passed the "transition to adulthood" milestones by age 30 (finishing school, moving out of their parents' homes, being financially independent, marrying, and having children); in 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had completed these milestones by age 30. [39]


  3. Many college graduates are employed in jobs that do not require college degrees. According to the Department of Labor, as of 2008, 17 million college graduates were in positions that did not require a college education. [6] 1 in 3 college graduates had a job that required a high school diploma or less in 2012. [5] More than 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders, 115,000 janitors and 15% of taxi drivers have bachelor's degrees. [6] College graduates with jobs that do not require college degrees earn 30-40% less per week than those who work in jobs requiring college degrees. [40]


  4. Many recent college graduates are un- or underemployed. In 2011 50% of college graduates under 25 years old had no job or a part-time job. [4] The unemployment rate for recent college graduates was 8.8% in Feb. 2013, down from 10.4% in 2010, but up from 5.7% in 2007. [41] The underemployment (insufficient work) rate for the class of 2013 was 18.3% [41] According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 44% of recent college graduates were underemployed in 2012. [42]


  5. Many people succeed without college degrees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 30 projected fastest growing jobs between 2010 and 2020, five do not require a high school diploma, nine require a high school diploma, four require an associate's degree, six require a bachelor's degree, and six require graduate degrees. [43] The following successful people either never enrolled in college or never completed their college degrees: Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group; Charles Culpepper, owner and CEO of Coca Cola; Ellen Degeneres, comedian and actress; Michael Dell, founder of Dell, Inc.; Walt Disney, Disney Corporation founder; Bill Gates, Microsoft founder; Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple; Wolfgang Puck, chef and restauranteur; Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple; Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. [44]


  6. Many students do not graduate and waste their own and their government's money. Over 25% of students who enroll in college do not return for the second year. [45] About 44% of students at four-year colleges dropped out according to a Feb. 2011 study. [46] The federal government allocated $176.83 billion for college loans, grants, tax benefits, and work studies in 2013. [48] State governments spent $81.2 billion supporting public colleges in 2012. [49] Students who started bachelor's degrees in the fall of 2002 but did not graduate within six years accounted for $3.8 billion in lost income, $566 million in lost federal income taxes, and $164 million in lost state income taxes in one year. [50] The government gets fewer tax dollars from non-college graduates than from college graduates who have higher wages. [50] Students who drop out during the first year of college cost states $1.3 billion and the federal government $300 million per year in wasted student grant programs and government appropriations for colleges. [50]


  7. Student debt overwhelms many seniors. Whether they co-signed for a child or grandchild's education, or took out loans for their own educations, in 2012 there were 6.9 million student loan borrowers aged 50 and over who collectively owed $155 billion with individual average balances between $19,521 and $23,820. [51] Of the 6.9 million borrowers, 24.7% were more than 90 days delinquent in payments. [51] Almost 119,000 of older borrowers in default were having a portion of their Social Security payments garnished by the US government in 2012. [52]


  8. Learning a trade profession is a better option than college for many young adults. Trade professions are necessary for society to function, require less than four years of training, and often pay above average wages. The high number of young adults choosing college over learning a trade has created a 'skills gap' in the US and there is now a shortage of 'middle-skill" trade workers like machinists, electricians, plumbers, and construction workers. One 2011 survey of US manufacturers found that 67% reported a "moderate to severe shortage of talent," [53] "Middle-skill" jobs represent half of all jobs in the US that pay middle-class wages. [54] According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "middle-skill" jobs will make up 45% of projected job openings through 2014, but as of 2012 only 25% of the workforce had the skills to fill those jobs. [55]


  9. College degrees do not guarantee learning or job preparation. Many students graduate from college with little understanding of math, reading, civics, or economics. [56] In 2011, 35% of students enrolled in college reported they studied 5 hours or less per week and there was a 50% decline in the number of hours a student studied and prepared for classes compared to a few decades ago. [57] 36% of students demonstrated no significant improvement on Collegiate Learning Assessments after 4 years of college. [58] In 2013 56% of employers thought half or fewer of college graduates had the skills and knowledge to advance within their companies. [59] 30% of college graduates felt college did not prepare them well for employment, specifically in terms of technical and quantitative reasoning skills. [60] A 2011 Pew Research survey found that 57% of Americans felt higher education did not provide students with good value compared to the money spent. [25]


  10. Student debt could cause another financial crisis. As of 2012 student loan debt was over $1 trillion dollars, and more than 850,000 student loans were in default. [61] According to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, student loans are "beginning to have the same effect" on the economy that the housing bubble and crash created. [62] Former Secretary of Education William Bennett, PhD, agrees that the student loan debt crisis "is a vicious cycle of bad lending policies eerily similar to the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis." [63] On Feb. 3, 2012, an advisory council to the Federal Reserve also warned that the growth in student debt "has parallels to the housing crisis." [64] As of Jan. 2013, the rate of default on student loans hit 15.1%--a nearly 22% increase since 2007. [65]


  11. Tuition has risen quicker than income, making it difficult for the average American to pay for college without incurring debt. The average cost for a 4-year degree (including room and board) increased 130% for private schools and 131.4% for public schools from fall 1982 to fall 2012, while median family income increased 10.9%. [41] Published annual tuition rates for 4-year public colleges increased 27% ($1,850) from the 2007-2008 school year to the 2012-2013 school year on average. [66] Tuition at public four-year colleges is up 27% beyond overall inflation. [67]


  12. Too many students earning degrees has diluted the value of a bachelor's degree. Rita McGrath, PhD, Associate Professor at Columbia Business School, stated "Having a bachelor's used to be more rare and candidates with the degree could therefore be more choosy and were more expensive to hire. Today, that is no longer the case." [68] A high unemployment rate shifts the supply and demand to the employers' favor and has made master’s degrees the "new bachelor's degrees." [68] According to James Altucher, venture capitalist and finance writer, "college graduates hire only college graduates, creating a closed system that permits schools to charge exorbitant prices and forces students to take on crippling debt." [69]


  13. The total cost of going to college also includes the cost of missing opportunities to make money at a job. The total cost of going to college means more than tuition, fees, and books; it also includes an opportunity cost which equals at least four years of missed wages and advancements from a full-time job--about $49,000 for a 4-year degree and $20,000 for a 2-year degree. [8]


  14. A college degree is no guarantee of workplace benefits. In 2013, 68.9% of employed new college graduates did not receive health insurance through their employers and, in 2011, 27.2% received retirement coverage (down from 41.5% in 2000). [41]

  15. Student loan debt may not be forgiven in bankruptcy and may not have the same borrower protections as other consumer debt. A 2011 study found 60% of people attempting to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy were unsuccessful. [70] In order to discharge a student loan in bankruptcy, the borrower must prove "undue hardship," which can be difficult as in the case of Doug Wallace, Jr. who fought for six years to have his $38,000 in student loans discharged after becoming blind and being unable to work; his student loans were not discharged although his medical debt was immediately discharged. [71] Medical, legal, credit card, loan, and even gambling debt can immediately be discharged in bankruptcy. [71] Private student loans often do not have the same protections as federal loans like income-based repayments, discharges upon death, or military deferments. [61]


  16. Colleges may be indoctrinating students instead of educating them. According to William Hare, PhD, Professor Emeritus at Mount Saint Vincent University, "teachers may abuse their power and authority and seek to impose certain beliefs and values, actively discouraging their students from raising problems or objections." [72] A 2010-2011 UCLA survey of full-time faculty at 4-year colleges found 50.3% identified as "liberal" compared to 11.5% who identified as "conservative." [73] David Horowitz, MA, conservative activist and author, asserts that university "curriculum has been expanded to include agendas about ‘social change’ that are overtly political." [74]


  17. College stress can lead to health problems and other negative consequences. 40.2% of college students reported feeling "frequently overwhelmed" in a 2012 survey about stress levels. [75] According to the University of Florida’s Counseling & Wellness Center, "The competition for grades, the need to perform, relationships, fear of AIDS, career choice, and many other aspects of the college environment cause stress." [76] According to the Director of Student Health Services at Biola University, college stress can lead to "headaches, weight gain, chronic digestive disorders, fatigue, increases [in] blood pressure, insomnia, teeth grinding in sleep, general irritability, reoccurring feeling of hopelessness, depression and anxiety and low self-esteem." [77]
Comment Comment
Background: "Is a College Education Worth It?"
prospect of over education puck cartoon
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1902 Puck cartoon illustrating the prospect of too many college degrees.
Source: Library of Congress, "A Prospect of Higher Education," www.loc.gov (accessed Sep. 26, 2013)

The debate over whether a college education is worth it may have begun when the colonists arrived from Europe and founded "New College" (later renamed Harvard University) in 1636. With 19.9 million US college students in 2013 and average student debt at over $26,500, the debate continues today.

People who argue that college is worth it contend that college graduates have higher employment rates, bigger salaries, and more work benefits than high school graduates. They say college graduates also have better interpersonal skills, live longer, have healthier children, and have proven their ability to achieve a major milestone.

People who argue that college is not worth it contend that the debt from college loans is too high and delays graduates from saving for retirement, buying a house, or getting married. They say many successful people never graduated from college and that many jobs, especially trades jobs, do not require college degrees.

Colonial America produced nine colleges that still operate: Harvard University (1636), the College of William & Mary (1693), Yale University (1701), Princeton University (1746), Columbia University (1754), Brown University (1764), Dartmouth College (1769), Rutgers University (1766), and the University of Pennsylvania (1740 or 1749). [3, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86] These universities were funded by the colony or England and usually catered to a specific religious denomination such as Congregational or Presbyterian (Puritan). [3, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86] Primary and secondary school systems were not yet established so "college students" were sometimes boys as young as fourteen or fifteen years old and were admitted to receive preparatory education with the assumption that they would matriculate to college-level courses. [3]

arizona university cooking class 1905
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1905 women's cooking class at the University of Arizona.
Source: University of Arizona, "UA History & Traditions: 1905. The Cooking Class at Work," www.arizona.edu (accessed Sep. 26, 2013)
Colonial colleges were mainly founded and attended by wealthy Puritans, and followed the models of British and Scottish universities, which focused on general education and moral character. [3, 87] The goal of the college was to produce Christian gentlemen who would inherit family businesses, remain within the Congregational or Presbyterian (Puritan) faith, and be responsible leaders in the new world. [3]
>Colonial college tuition costs and the loss of an able-bodied man from the family farm or business made the prestige and social status conferred by college unattainable for most families. [3] About 1% of white males aged 18-21 attended college and students frequently left college after their first or second year, with no "dropout" stigma. [3, 87] Out of 35 students, Yale conferred nine bachelor’s degrees by 1711. [88] Colonial colleges excluded women but sometimes had "Indian schools," to spread Puritanism in Native American communities for religious indoctrination purposes. [3] The American Revolution (1775-1783) drained colleges of students who became soldiers and buildings that became barracks and of the funds from England resulting in the closing of many colleges postwar. [3]

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created a college-building boom, increasing the number of schools from 25 colleges in 1800 to 241 colleges in 1860; increasing the variety of schools to include seminaries, scientific schools, military service academies, and teaching schools; and increasing the programs of study to include medicine, law, military science, and agriculture. [3] State universities came into prominence beginning with the University of North Carolina (1795) and the University of Georgia (1801). [3] In the spring of 1833, Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College) admitted women to a "Ladies Course" program and in 1837 admitted four women to the baccalaureate program, three of whom graduated in 1841 with degrees. [100]

The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act gave federally controlled land to states to open "land grant" colleges, which were required to focus on "useful arts" like agriculture, mechanics, mining, and military instruction and thus often included "A&M" (Agricultural & Mechanical) in the names. [3] The idea of a "useful" education also created schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1851. [89] Many craftsmen who relied upon apprenticeships were skeptical of college training and distrusted scholars and scientists. A college degree was still seen by many as a social marker rather than a marker of educational attainment. [3]

Life magazine cover flapper lighting cigarette with diploma
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June 3, 1926 cover of Life magazine showing a "flapper" college graduate lighting a cigarette with her diploma
Source: Words and Eggs, "Throwback Thursday: 1920s Illustrations of John Held, Jr.," www.wordsandeggs.wordpress.com, Sep. 16, 2009
By 1865 most Southern colleges ceased offering classes because the American Civil War caused significant physical damage to many colleges while others were made into hospitals and shelters for soldiers and many Southern students and faculty left college for the Confederate Army. [3] In 1870, the number of colleges was 560 (up from just 9 colleges at the American Revolution). [87]

The early 1900s saw institutions created to educate groups excluded by traditional colleges: women, blacks, immigrants, and Roman Catholics. [3, 90] Black colleges remained restricted to grade-school and agricultural- or industrial-focused instruction with little college-level education offered. [3] Iowa State University was the first co-ed land grant college, though women remained segregated and were expected to study "domestic science" or similar topics. [90] Colleges were built in the South to keep Southern sons "far from the dangerous notions circulating at a Harvard or a Yale," with high tuitions and a code of honor that included duels amongst students. [3] "Hilltop colleges" in New England opened to cater to older working students training to be teachers or ministers. [3] Colleges built on the emerging western frontier had small populations to support them and there were often less than a few hundred students who could attend the college. [91] "Diploma mills" also popped up during this time, especially the "medical college," which frequently had no campus or faculty but would confer degrees in exchange for donations. [3]


The goal of college attendance still was not completion of a bachelor's degree. Some students took two years of courses in order to earn an LI (license of instruction) certificate to teach public school but many did not complete the degree because, as explained by Roger L. Geiger, Distinguished Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University, "there was nothing to be done with a bachelor’' degree that could not also be done without one." [3,92]

By 1900, 5% (about 256,000) of 18-21 year old males attended college, up from 3.1% (32,364) in 1860 and 1% (1,237) in 1800. [87] Students were normally accepted based on gender, religion, and race. [3] Graduation rates continued to be low; about 30% of the1903 freshman class at Kentucky State College graduated, while Transylvania University averaged a 50% drop out rate in the first year and barely 10% graduated with a degree in four years. [3]

Although tuition had seen no major increases, the price of college was still too high for the average family. [3] For the 1907-1908 academic year, Brown University published an average tuition budget: $105 for tuition, $48 for "incidental fees," $60 for room, $150 for board, and $30 for books and lab fees; totaling $393 per year, or $9,535.67 in 2012 US dollars [3] By 1910, "undergraduate life" came into prominence with mascots, school colors, college hymns, intercollegiate athletics, and other traditions. [3]

work smart not hard 1970s poster
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Late 1970s college recruitment poster, "Work Smart NOT Hard"
Source: SLS Construction & Building Solutions, "My Take: Profoundly Disconnected, the Industry, & Me?," www.blog.sls-construction.com, July 9, 2013
World War I dropped enrollments on the east coast by 27-40% but only 10% of Stanford men left college for the war. [3] In total, 540 colleges were made into training campuses for the Students’ Army Training Corps to train 125,000 men. [3] Around this time the American Medical Association began lobbying for medical schools to require some college science (if not a completed college degree) for admission into medical schools, law schools followed Harvard Law School’s example to require baccalaureate degrees for admission, and seminaries were requiring at least a year of college. [92]

After 1920 college students became associated with parties, gambling, and bathtub gin. [3] But, such partying was tolerated because of the upward social mobility gained by making contacts and partying with the right crowd. [3]

Between 1920 and 1945 secondary schools expanded, increasing the number of high school graduates, the number of college students from 250,000 to 1.3 million, and the percentage of college students from 5% to 15%. [3] However, an 18-24 year old white person was four times more likely to attend college than a black person of the same age and women constituted about 40% of college enrollments but were still being trained in segregation as teachers, good wives, and mothers. [3]

In the 1920s and 1930s, college tuition started to rise with one national survey showing tuition at $70 in 1920 and $133 in 1940, or from $793.29 to $2,148.31 in 2012 US dollars. [3] In comparison, a 1940 new Pontiac car cost $483 ($7,074 in 2012 dollars). [3]

After World War II colleges and universities moved toward advanced, selective programs and expanded the base of students admitted. [3] Research universities, junior colleges (now called community colleges), and for-profit institutions thrived. [3]

In the 1939-1940 school year, student enrollment was under 1.5 million nationally, but, by the 1949-1950 school year, student enrollment grew to 2.7 million. [3] The 1944 GI Bill contributed to some of the enrollment gains and by the beginning of the 1945-1946 school year, 88,000 veterans were accepted into the program; by 1946, over one million were accepted; and by 1950, 14 million veterans were in the program. [3] Women represented about 40% of enrollment in the 1939-1940 school year but that number dropped to 32% in 1950. [3] Individual schools implemented honor programs, specialty seminars, study abroad, and smaller class sizes to attract more discerning students [3] By 1960, national enrollment was at 3.6 million and at 7.9 million in 1970. [3] Society became interested in the college lives of "Joe College" and "Betty Coed" and created the college ideal of graduating in four years, marrying the college sweetheart, and finding a good job. [3]

The federal government created the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), later renamed the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and collected data in the fall of 1968, the first time standardized data was collected about colleges and universities nationwide. [93]

unemployment by educational attainment
(Click to enlarge image)
Chart illustrating the unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma, a high school diploma, some college, and a bachelor's degree.
Source: Catherine Rampell, "College Is (Still) Worth It," www.nytimes.com, Feb. 1, 2013
Pell Grants were introduced in 1972 and increased the number of students for whom higher education was possible. [3] By 1978, the financial aid focus changed from grants to loans, increasing the amount of debt a graduating college student owned. [3] In the 1975-1976 school year 75% of students received grants, 21% received loans compared to the 1984-1985 school year in which 29% of students received grants and 66% received loans. [94]

The major shift in higher education during this time was the transition from mass higher education, expecting to educate 40-50% of high school graduates, to universal higher education, expecting to educate all high school graduates. [3] The shift was seen in public school enrollments which accounted for about 75% of enrollments in 1970, up from the almost equal split between public and private colleges in 1950. [3] Community colleges and technical institutes also gained students: from 82,000 in 1950 to 1.3 million in 1980. [3]

Transfer students were accommodated, classes were offered at military bases, and courses were offered at extension sites for non-traditional students while colleges were opening to diverse student populations. [3] Title IX (1972) and affirmative action demanded inclusive admission practices for women and black students. [3, 95, 96]

The 1970s also saw the shift from higher education for education’s sake to a need for pre-professional studies and a translation to work after graduation. [3] For many, to be considered middle-class or to get a middle-class job required a college degree. [2]

The 1970s and 1980s brought questions of whether the return on a college degree was worth the investment. In 1971 a male college graduate earned 22% more than a high school graduate but by 1979 a college degree increased earnings by 13%. [7] By 1987, the earning gap was 38%, which was an improvement but added doubts about the stability of higher education as an investment. [29] The 1980s also brought a dramatic increase in the cost of college, which was rising faster than inflation and the average family income. [7]
average recent college graduate
(Click to enlarge image)
Infographic illustrating the attributes of the average recent college graduate.
The 1990s and 2000s saw a rise in enrollment and tuition costs, and a steadily lower unemployment rate for college graduates. College enrollment increased 11% between 1990 and 2000 and increased 37% from 2000 to 2010 to 21 million students. [97] The average college tuition in the 1990-1991 school year was $10,620 and rose to $13,393 in 2000-2001. [98] Between the 2000-2001 school year and the 2010-2011 school year, public college costs (tuition, room, and board) increased 42% to $18,133. [98] The unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor's degree or higher in 1990 was 6.5% (compared to 24.9% for high school drop outs) and was 3.7% in 2000 (compared to 18.4% for high school drop outs). [99] By 2010, the unemployment rate for college graduates increased to 5.5% while the rate for college dropouts was 17.3% [99]

A 2011 Pew Research survey showed 50% of college presidents said college is meant to "mature and grow intellectually," while 48% said college should "provide skills, knowledge and training to help… [students] succeed in the working world." [25]

The number of colleges and universities grew from 1,851 in 1950 to 3,535 in 1990 to 6,900 in 2013. In the 1949-1950 school year 2.66 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities; by the 1989-1990 school year 13.54 million students were enrolled. [2] In fall of 2013, 19.9 students were enrolled in colleges and universities. [1]
Video Gallery

not clearly pro or conSelect International looks at facts and asks currents and former students if college is worth it
Source: SelectInternational, "Are College Degrees Useless," www.youtube.com, May 23, 2013
not clearly pro or conTV personality Mike Rowe discusses the skills gap.
Source: mikeroweWORKS, "The Skills Gap," www.youtube.com, July 20, 2013


not clearly pro or con Wall Street Journal's Jason Bellini talks to Dale Stephens (con college education) and Zac Bissonnette (pro college education) about whether college is worth it
Source: WSJ Digital Network, "Is College Worth It? - 'The Short Answer w/Jason Bellini," www.youtube.com, Mar. 27, 2013
conSpoken word artist Suli Breaks ponders college and education.
Source: Sulibreezy, "Why I Hate School But Love Education//Spoken Word," www.youtube.com, Dec. 2012
 
Notices for College Education (archived after 30 days)

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