Despite housing prices, crowded public schools and many other challenges facing many Americans, a massive majority believe that college is necessary to get ahead in the world. In fact, only 6 percent of respondents think young people can effectively succeed in a four-year college education without some type of financial aid.
The fact that so many view a four-year college degree as a prerequisite to real success in today’s job market is disconcerting, as is the fact that many believe it is unnecessary. In reality, only one in five adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher. This means, more often than not, the vast majority of young people will be better off paying for college on their own. After all, there is more than enough room in the market for everyone who wants to be a part of the future.
According to Deloitte’s 2017 college affordability report, young Americans will gain more education than their parents did. The report found that 69 percent of millennials and Gen-Xers have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Yet, recent figures from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce predict that 27 percent of working-age Americans — those between the ages of 25 and 29 — will lack a bachelor’s degree in the next decade. This number is expected to rise to 33 percent by 2025. This warning indicates a stark challenge that many are not prepared to handle. It also represents the starting point for a not-so-subtle economic war in which the growing number of college graduates are able to buy their own, more expensive education.
In an effort to compete for education dollars, most major college campuses have scrambled to court all ages of potential applicants. These campuses have made graduating one degree seem like a necessity — even if it just costs hundreds of thousands of dollars over four years.
What are the most commonly offered benefits to new college students? A growing number of colleges are now offering up some combination of more than one major in order to try to convince prospective students that there is more to come. But the truth is that there is no guarantee that people will find it worth the extra tuition to specialize in one major.
But even more misleading than the promise of a four-year education are the outright promises of a four-year degree from any institution. For some, the promise of a bachelor’s degree is enough. But unfortunately, for most people, a B.A. can prove to be very little more than a high school diploma. And the cost is not much lower when choosing a university that includes a well-respected teacher education program in addition to a bachelor’s degree.
In 2007, the Association of American Colleges and Universities projected that there would be 21,000 more bachelor’s degrees and 10,000 more masters degrees added in the nation between 2008 and 2020. What’s more, though, is that student debt has been on the rise, most likely because of a strong rise in undergraduate enrollment.
According to Pew Research, in 1970, a graduating high school senior with a bachelor’s degree could expect to have accumulated less than $25,000 in student loan debt; in 2016, the total was $33,200. And in January 2017, nearly 21 million Americans were still struggling to pay their student loans — that’s nearly one out of every five American adults. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office reported that more than a quarter of the 10.4 million people receiving federal Direct Loans in 2014 were unable to pay for food and other basic expenses because of payments on federal student loans.
These three facts alone prove the lack of thoughtfulness underlying today’s college campus recruiting efforts. There is no reason for higher education to promise a four-year degree for all students when the vast majority — regardless of their financial means — can succeed in life without one. And of course, many students will achieve more success with less debt by starting out at community college and graduating in the fields where they will enjoy most success. In the end, there’s no shame in pursuing a less costly degree.
Jina L. Wu is the director of the Labor Center at the Worker Institute at Cornell University. She is also a research scientist and adjunct professor at Cornell University.