Debating the benefits and costs of college

“In your opinion, what is the main reason students get education beyond high school?” A recent Gallup poll asked Americans and 86 percent of the respondents said that money, and the ability to earn more of it, was the biggest motivation for pursuing higher education. Money as a motivator is nothing new, but it has certified itself as an important metric to examine when discussing the costs and benefits of higher education. Now, with student debt approaching the $1 trillion mark, many people start asking themselves if a college degree is really worth the price. Students hand over both time and money to education institutions, with the expectation that they will receive a return on their investment.


The value of a degree

Fewer and fewer high school graduates consider betting on themselves to be worth it. In 2009, 70.1 percent of US high school grads enrolled in some form of higher education, and now that number is down to 65.9 percent in 2015, according to the New York Times.

The average cost of a four-year degree at a public institution is currently $134,000, but The College Board projects the same degree to cost $323,900 by 2033. As the cost for a degree increases, the consequences for failure intensify, and the downward trend in college enrollment could continue.

A recent survey from Pew Research examined the quality of post-graduation employment of graduates aged 22 to 27, and found that “44 percent of graduates were working in jobs that didn’t require a college degree” and “only 36 percent of that group were in what the researchers called ‘good non-college jobs’ — those paying around $45,000 a year.” But even though recent graduates are having trouble finding jobs, those with degrees are earning more than those without, and that disparity is growing. Based on the median annual earnings among full-time workers age 25-32, on average those with only a high school degree earn $28,000 a year, and graduates from two-year programs earn $30,000 on average. In the same study, graduates with a four-year degree or higher earned $45,000, a 62.2 percent increase over a high school degree.


A local perspective

Two years ago MSU produced a Career Destinations report, which was based on 1,379 graduates from summer of 2012 to spring of 2013 from undergraduate, graduate and doctorates programs. The report breaks down employment percentages and average salaries for colleges as a whole, as well as specific majors and focuses. Overall, it seems that a degree from MSU is on-par, if not higher, with the value of the average college diploma. MSU graduates with a bachelor’s degree earned $40,793 on average within their first year out of college, compared to the $40,000 national average. Even further, over 50 percent didn’t begin their job search until their final semester.

Yet as the paradigm of conversation around higher education stays focused on monetary tradeoffs, important roles universities serve are being forgotten, as they are often difficult to show on a pie chart. Almost all available research on the purpose of higher education is centered around money, but what does the MSU community think of the issue?

Junior political science major Ai Ishii is less concerned about the monetary value of a degree and more focused on the future opportunities, other than employment, that will be made possible with her degree. Ishii, an international student from Tokyo who plans to graduate spring 2017, made the decision to go to college as it is “necessary to compete in any professional world.”

With intentions of pursuing a law degree in international law, Ishii plans to work for a two year Japanese foreign aid program, a decision that was not motivated by the ever changing job market. “It’s about a learning experience outside the classroom,” she said. “There are some things I’ll never be taught at a university, and this is my chance to learn about a completely different country and the way it works.” As Ishii continued speaking, she made it clear that while living in a developing nation has been a desire of hers for years, she had not seriously considered it until her time at MSU.

Genna Shaia, a sophomore majoring in archaeology, came to Bozeman from Olney, Maryland, with aspirations to pursue a career in archaeology. “I knew I needed to go to college after my summer spent waitressing,” Shaia said. Both Shaia’s parent’s attended MSU before her, which she said played a large role in her final college decision. She then jokingly added, “I also love Birkenstocks, skiing and flannels, Bozeman is perfect for all of those.”

Shaia then continued to talk about the personal value a degree held as well, stating, “I knew if I didn’t earn a degree I wouldn’t be happy. The pressures put on me at MSU, despite being stressful and anxiety-inducing, force me to improve myself.”

Dr. Jerry Johnson, a MSU political science professor presented an alternatively different approach. With nearly 30 years of experience in higher education, 26 of those year spent at MSU, he spoke about research performed by universities. Johnson, while in his undergraduate years, had several work studies on his plate at a time. “They used to just turn my work studies into research grants when I became overloaded,” he said. “I was a run of the mill student. But they kept throwing money at me. It was a different time, but there are still questions we want answers with no research being done to answer them. That’s when the university comes in.”

While Johnson supports research in higher education, he thinks the college experience is changing as a whole. “The days of coming to college to find yourself, and spending tens of thousands of dollars to do so, are over,” he said. “There are tradeoffs with how you develop yourself as a person, and going to college to write checks to a university might not be the only way to gain professional experience and interact with your peers.”

Weston Haycock is a freshman whose education is being paid for with a scholarship through the non profit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Haycoks father, Sargent First Class Jefferey Haycock, passed away while on active duty, and his mother committed suicide nine years later when he was 15.

“Without that scholarship, I don’t know if I’d be at MSU,” he said. “But I want to be here,” he continued, “beyond the employment benefits, and earning opportunities, I want that official certification of excellence, a degree.” Haycock continued to discuss the importance of degrees beyond undergraduate for identifying competence as well. “Look, anyone can say ‘I’m a good writer,’ but lot fewer can say ‘Harvard says I’m a good writer’. It’s that validation from an accredited source that I’m after.”

Haycock then dove into the personal growth benefits his MSU experience has offered. “A lot of people come school knowing exactly what they want to do,” he said, “I was not one of those people. Honestly, I was the other way around. I came to school in order to figure out what I want to do.” Haycock is now pursuing a major in writing. “It’s a lot riskier than an engineering degree,” he joked, “But I have to run with what I’m good at and what I love. That’s writing.”

For Haycock, those moments of development didn’t come from an educational achievement, however. “One of the proudest moments of my life is when I paid off my own tuition,” he said, referring to him attending college under the condition that he would work for and maintain his scholarship from TAPS. “I I transitioned from a clueless freshman thinking ‘Is college right for me?’ and realized I have a life changing opportunity here at MSU, and I need to take complete advantage of it.”

Whether it’s a desire to better one’s self, earn a degree, make more money, or any other purpose, students have a motivation and a reason to be enrolled in higher education. There is no right or wrong reason to pursue education, only a personal one that exists in every student seeking a college degree. The value of higher education is not quantifiable, but for various reasons it is pursued by so many young people.