Last updated on: 6/29/2023 | Author:


History of College Education

The American debate over whether a college education is worth it began when the colonists arrived from Europe and founded “New College” (later renamed Harvard University) in 1636. In spring 2023, there were over 17 million college students in the United States, and over 43 million borrowers owe a collective $1.75 trillion in total student debt. 

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). These universities were funded by the colony or England and usually catered to a specific religious denomination such as Congregational or Presbyterian (Puritan). 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

Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

Jobs increasingly require college degrees and college allows students to explore careers and earn better job placements.

Only 34% of American jobs required a high school diploma or less in 2017, compared to 72% in the 1970s. 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. According to researchers at Georgetown University, 99% of job growth (or 11.5 million of 11.6 million jobs) between 2010 and 2016 went to workers with associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees or graduate degrees. [13] [104] [105]

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. Colleges provide networking value. [27]

Harvard Business School estimates that 65 to 85% of jobs are acquired through networking. 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. [30] [31]

Meanwhile, college graduates have more and better employment opportunities. 85.2% of college freshmen said they attended college to “be able to get a better job.” The unemployment rate for Americans over 25 with a bachelor’s degree was 1.9% in Dec. 2019, compared to 2.7% for those with some college or associate’s degrees, 3.7% for high school graduates, and 5.2% for high school drop-outs. Underemployment, meaning insufficient work, is lower for college grads (6.2%) as compared to high school-only graduates (12.9%) and people without a high school diploma (18.7%). 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] [101] [106] [116]

Thus, college graduates make more money. The average college graduate makes $570,000 more than the average high school graduate over a lifetime. Career earnings for college graduates are 71% to 136% higher than those of high school graduates. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York calculated a 14% rate of return on a bachelor’s degree, which constitutes a good investment. College graduates earn an average of $78,000, a 75% wage premium over the average $45,000 annual earnings for workers with only a high school diploma. 85% of Forbes’ America’s 400 Richest People list were college grads. [12] [122] [126] [128]

And, because college graduates are more likely to have better jobs with better salaries, they are also 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. 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] [15]

All of that means a 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%). Completing some college, but not earning a degree, resulted in a 9.1% return on investment. 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), 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. [8] [25] [32] [33]

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Pro 2

Because they learn interpersonal and other skills in college, graduates are more productive as members of society.

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. Students ranked “interpersonal skills” as the most important skill used in their daily lives in a survey of 11,000 college students. Vivek Wadhwa, 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.” [7] [16] [18]

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 hometowns, which broadens their knowledge and perspective. 70.7% of college freshmen in 2015 said they expected to socialize with someone of another racial or ethnic group while in college, while 59.1% said college would help improve their understanding of other countries and cultures. [106]

Henry Bienan, 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.” 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. 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 likely 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] [22] [23]

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]

Finally, 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. 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. [28] [29]

College graduates have lower poverty rates due to their lower unemployment rates. The 2008 poverty rate for bachelor’s degree holders was 4%, compared to a 12% poverty rate for high school graduates. 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. 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] [21]

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Pro 3

College graduates and their children are healthier and live longer.

83% of college graduates reported being in excellent health, while 73% of high school graduates reported the same. A University of Southern California study found that adults over 65 with college degrees spent more years with “good cognition” and fewer years suffering from dementia than adults who did not complete high school. In 2008, 20% of all adults were smokers, while 9% of college graduates were smokers. 63% of 25 to 34 year old college graduates reported exercising vigorously at least once a week compared to 37% of high school graduates. 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. In 2008, 23% of college graduates aged 35 to 44 years old were obese compared to 37% of high school graduates. College graduates, on average, live six years longer than high school graduates. [11] [15] [19] [20] [120]

A medical journal study from 1970 to 2009 shows college graduates had lower infant mortality rates than high school graduates. 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. 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. 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. 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 to 27% for high school graduate parents. [11] [15] [21]

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Con 1

College is not a guarantee of a job or better life.

Many college graduates are employed in jobs that do not require college degrees. According to the Department of Labor, as many as 17 million college graduates work in positions that do not require a college education. 1 in 3 college graduates had a job that required a high school diploma or less in 2012. More than 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders, 115,000 janitors and 15% of taxi drivers have bachelor’s degrees. 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. [5] [6] [40]

Too many students earning degrees has diluted the value of a bachelor’s degree. Rita McGrath, 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.” A high unemployment rate shifts the supply and demand to the employers’ favor and has made master’s degrees the “new bachelor’s degrees.” 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.” [68] [69]

College degrees also do not guarantee learning or job preparation. Many students graduate from college with little understanding of math, reading, civics, or economics. 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. 36% of students demonstrated no significant improvement on Collegiate Learning Assessments after 4 years of college. In 2013 56% of employers thought half or fewer of college graduates had the skills and knowledge to advance within their companies. 30% of college graduates felt college did not prepare them well for employment, specifically in terms of technical and quantitative reasoning skills. A Pew Research survey found that 57% of Americans felt higher education did not provide students with good value compared to the money spent. [25] [56] [57] [58] [59] [60]

The market glut and lack of job preparation, means many recent college graduates are un- or underemployed. The unemployment rate for recent college graduates (4.0%) exceeded the average for all workers, including those without a degree (3.6%) in 2019. The underemployment rate was 34% for all college graduates and 41.1% for recent grads. The underemployment (insufficient work) rate for college graduates in 2015 was 6.2% overall: 5.2% for white graduates, 8.4% for Hispanic graduates, and 9.7% for black graduates. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 44% of recent college graduates were underemployed in 2012. [42] [101] [129]

Under- or un-employement also translates into fewer 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]

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]

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Con 2

Student loan debt is crippling for college graduates, their families, and society.

Tuition has risen quicker than income, making college unaffordable for many and forcing students to take out loans. A Mar. 2017 study found that 14% of community college students were homeless and 51% had housing insecurity issues (inability to pay rent or utilities, for example), while 33% experienced food insecurity (lack of access to or ability to pay for “nutritionally adequate and safe foods”), though 58% of the students were employed and 42% received federal Pell Grants. From the 1986-1987 school year to the 2016-2017 school year, the average cost of one year of college (including room and board) increased for 4-year private schools (109.6%) and 4-year public schools (125.7%), while median family income only increased 10.0% between 1986 and 2015. From the 1976-1977 school year to the 2016-2017 school year, annual tuition rates rose for community colleges (173.1%), 4-year public colleges (271.2%), and private 4-year colleges (213.5%). [111] [112] [113]

In spring 2023, there were over 17 million college students in the United States, and over 43 million borrowers owe a collective $1.75 trillion in total student debt. 45% of people with student loan debt say college was not worth it. 10% of students graduate with over $40,000 in debt and about 1% have $100,000 in debt. In Feb. 2018, undergraduate college graduates had an average of $37,172 in loan debt. According to the US Congress Joint Economic Committee, approximately 60% of college graduates have student loan debt balances equal to 60% of their annual income. Missing late for loan payments leads to lower credit scores and additional fees, worsening the debt problem. [36] [37] [107] [123] [133] [134]

Further, student loan debt often forces college graduates to live with their parents and delay marriage, financial independence, and other adult milestones. 20% of millennials are homeowners, and most millennials say their student debt has delayed home ownership by seven years on average. Student loan borrowers delayed saving for retirement (41%), car purchases (40%), home purchases (29%), and marriage (15%). Fewer 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. [38] [39] [121]

Student debt also 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. Of the 6.9 million borrowers, 24.7% were more than 90 days delinquent in payments. Almost 119,000 of older borrowers in default were having a portion of their Social Security payments garnished by the US government in 2012. [51] [52]

Student loan debt may not be forgiven in bankruptcy and may not have the same borrower protections as other consumer debt. A study found 60% of people attempting to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy were unsuccessful. Medical, legal, credit card, loan, and even gambling debt can immediately be discharged in bankruptcy, but getting student loan debt discharged is much more difficult and rare. Private student loans often do not have the same protections as federal loans like income-based repayments, discharges upon death, or military deferments. [61] [70] [71]

College graduates aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by debt. Many students do not graduate and waste their own and their government’s money. About 19% of students who enroll in college do not return for the second year. 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. Overall, 41% of students at four-year colleges and universities did not graduate within six years: 41% at public schools, 34% at private non-profits, and 77% at private for-profits. Students who 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] [117]

Finally, 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. 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. 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.” 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.” As of Jan. 2013, the rate of default on student loans hit 15.1%–a nearly 22% increase since 2007. [61] [62] [63] [64] [65]

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Con 3

Many people would be better served learning a trade or pursuing work right out of high school.

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 survey of US manufacturers found that 67% reported a “moderate to severe shortage of talent.” “Middle-skill” jobs represent half of all jobs in the US that pay middle-class wages. 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. [53] [54] [55]

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. 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 restaurateur; Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple; Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. [43] [44]

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Did You Know?
1. 19.9 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities in 2019, compared to 13.5 million in 1990, 7.9 million in 1970, and 2.7 million in 1949. [2] [3] [102] [123]
2. The underemployment rate was 34% for all college graduates and 41.1% for recent grads in 2019. [129]
3. One in three college graduates had a job that only required a high school diploma or less, including more than 16,000 parking lot attendants, 83,000 bartenders, and 115,000 janitors with bachelor's degrees. [5] [6]
4. College graduates earn an average of $78,000, a 75% wage premium over the average $45,000 annual earnings for workers with only a high school diploma. [128]
5. The unemployment rate for Americans over 25 with a bachelor's degree was 1.9% in Dec. 2019, compared to 2.7% for those with some college or associate's degrees, 3.7% for high school graduates, and 5.2% for high school drop-outs. [116]


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