Gray Matters — Cost versus reward

By Tanya Mitchell | Jun 05, 2014
Source: File image

Belfast — I never earned a college degree.

Instead, I was lucky enough to have taken a few writing classes during the year after I graduated from high school and managed to find a newspaper editor and staff who were willing to overlook my inexperience, hire me, and teach me everything they knew. I think most folks refer to that as the school of hard knocks.

As a young adult, just making my way in the world, I saw my classmates attending various colleges and universities around the state and country, pursuing their dreams in the way that many of our well-meaning families and teachers had encouraged us to do during our years in school.

While I wasn't sure I was doing the right thing, but frankly, college was a huge expense back when I graduated from Belfast Area High School 20 years ago. Even back then I knew my folks would have done all they could have to make sure I could further my education in any way I wished, but after seeing the size of the estimated monthly cost of my education I decided to approach my future in a different way. I didn't want my parents saddled with that expense, nor did I wish to be paying off students loans for much of my working life.

It was a personal choice, and maybe not one that is right for everyone, but it was mine to make.

I would never say it is a bad idea for a kid to attend college, as I've known many people who finished their degree programs and are happy to have acquired positions in their chosen fields, not to mention their forging lifelong friendships along the way. To any youths who are considering or who have been accepted into colleges and universities, I say work hard, make the best of your time there and go after that dream of yours.

That said, a recent article forbes.com contributor George Leef leaves me concerned about where the college grads of today and the very near future could be at in terms of debt versus employment prospects. The picture was not what I would describe as inspiring.

Leef works for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, a think tank that takes a critical view of higher education, according to his biography. So it is not a huge surprise that in late April he penned a piece arguing that a college education may not be all that it is cracked up to be, especially for the college grads of today.

But some of his observations made sense to me based on my own professional and life experiences.

Leef wrote about a study from the Pew Research Center in February titled "The Rising Cost of Not Going to College," which he said, in a nutshell, suggests that those who do not obtain a college degree are penalizing themselves. Leef stated while statistics show there is a relatively big pay gap between those with and without degrees, Leef argued that the reason for such is not that the degree itself makes a person more valuable as a candidate, but rather, because more employers have required more applicants to have those credentials, even for positions that did not require such in the not-so-distant past.

He also quoted statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor showing 260,000 Americans with college or professional degrees are employed in minimum-wage level jobs that require no advanced preparation or training — in other words, jobs they could have obtained with a high school diploma. Not super encouraging.

And the cost of a college education is not cheap — the National Center for Education Statistics reported that for the 2011–12 academic year, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board were estimated to be $14,300 at public institutions, $37,800 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,300 at private for-profit institutions.

For those who worked hard for that degree and are among those trying to make ends meet on minimum wage or just above that line, I cannot imagine how hard it must be to cover those school costs while also being able to take care of yourself — never mind factoring in the family, the house, the "American Dream."

On the flip-side a recent survey conducted by CareerBuilder, the largest online job site in the United States (again, grain of salt), stated "27 percent of employers say their educational requirements for employment have increased over the last five years and 30 percent are hiring more college-educated workers for positions that were previously held by high school graduates." According to CareerBuilder, this trend appears to be most prevalent in the financial services field, but is also taking off in other industries like healthcare, information technology, retail and manufacturing.

Speaking just for myself, I am glad I decided I couldn't afford college when I did. Because the reality is, I really couldn't, and I know I would still be struggling to pay down that debt now.

At the end of the day, it appears that the ways we advise our children to approach their own futures will be as varied as the kids themselves. If my son decides he wants to study anything in the realm of science and technology, or health care, well then sure, I would encourage him to attend college and I will do everything I can to help him get that degree. That is because I will feel quite confident that he will then likely be able to earn enough to take care of himself and his future family while also covering any student loan payments he may have incurred.

And I will most definitely encourage him to check out the Waldo County Technical Center when he reaches high school, because the programs are free to students coming from RSU 20 and RSU 3. A study from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce showed shorter term vocational training programs that award trade certifications can pay off, too, and sometimes better than a college degree. In part, the study stated that workers who are now in their mid 30s found that about 40 percent of those with professional certificates or licenses earned more than their contemporaries who hold an associate's degree. It's certainly something to consider.

I don't know what the answer is now, and I hope to have a better idea on how best to guide my son through all of this as he gets older. All I know now is that the last thing I want for my son is to see him do all the things he thinks he needs to do to be successful, only to be left paying off thousands in student loan debt while trying to survive on minimum wage.

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