Opinion: Going to college still worth it despite growing doubt

A 4.7% drop in undergraduate student enrollment in the U.S. is being seen as a signal that more Americans are questioning the cost and value of a college degree.

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A 4.7% drop in undergraduate student enrollment in the U.S. is being seen as a signal that more Americans are questioning the cost and value of a college degree.

For decades, parents and teachers have advised students, “Go to college. The degree assures you a good job.”

Today, that assertion is losing ground, as evidenced by data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Campuses enrolled 662,000 fewer undergraduate students this spring than they did a year ago. That 4.7% drop is being seen as a signal that more Americans are questioning the cost and value of a college degree.

While National Student Clearinghouse Research Center executive director Doug Shapiro acknowledges the pandemic depressed enrollment, he also told reporters in a media call, “There’s a broader question about the value of college and particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns.”

The enrollment decline was not as dramatic in Georgia, where there were 467,000 students in the state’s public and private colleges and universities during the spring semester, a 1.4% decline from last year.

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Two contradictory factors are at play, according to labor economist Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “The marquee fact here is that the median economic value-added of a bachelor’s degree doubled over the value of a high school degree after 1983,” he said. “But what has changed even more has been the increasing variation in earnings by college program or field of study. The level of degree you get matters, but there is much more variation by field of study than by level of degree. You have to pick the right program.”

High school students in Georgia get too little of the critical information from parents or school counselors about the link between what they choose to study in college and what they will earn as a result, even though the information is now available at the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard. For example, students planning to attend Georgia Tech can discover that the median income of a Tech grad in computer and information services three years after graduation is $110,089, compared to $69,552 for those with a Tech degree in radio, television and digital communications.

Georgetown’s research reveals the brightest prospects for college graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with nearly 80% holding good jobs, defined as paying at least $45,000 at midcareer. On the other hand, young workers who majored in arts, liberal arts and humanities are the least likely to land good jobs.

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Carnevale projects there will be 171 million jobs in the United States in 2031, an increase of 33 million over the pandemic plummet to 138 million jobs in March 2020. Thirty percent of those jobs will be available to high school graduates; another 30% will call for middle skills that require more than high school and less than a bachelor’s degree; and 40% will go to those with bachelor’s or graduate degrees.

But Carnevale has caveats: The majority of positions for college-educated workers will pay well, compared to only 20% to 30% of the jobs for high school graduates. And those higher-paid positions most often are men in construction-related industries, which are about to enjoy a boon from President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill.

“In every state and in every county in America over the next seven to 10 years, there is going to be a ribbon-cutting a week,” said Carnevale. Despite the presence of a female electrician or two at the ribbon-cuttings for press photos, Carnevale said, “That is not real. It’s a boys ville.” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data validates his comment; 1 in 57 working electricians in America is female.)

Carnevale noted many more workers will be hired to build or repair roads, bridges, ports, electrical grids and broadband initiatives than to maintain them after the projects are completed. The United States doesn’t have a record of success in retraining workers stranded by a downturn in their industry. “We don’t have programs where you can be out of work and supported for two years so you can be retrained. That is not us. That is Germany,” he said.

This demand for construction labor doesn’t change the central fact, Carnevale said, “that the bachelor’s degree is the locomotive, it is the engine on the train.” The message to high school students that a college degree is not essential to earn a decent wage is true, he said, but overstated.

“This is a moment — it is not a terrible moment — where a lot of people are going to be trained and get a decent job. They are not going to be middle-class white kids. Those kids are going to college,” said Carnevale.

Politicians who declare at their rallies that everyone doesn’t need a college degree will get a lot of nods from their audiences, said Carnevale. “But what the people in the audience mean is that other people’s children don’t need to go to college. Their children do.”