We need to change the narrative about college being "priceless"

Too many degree programs leave students with a ton of debt, and little earning potential.

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Sallie Mae is Calling

As many of us swimming in student debt know firsthand, if the higher education industry were any other industry, it probably would’ve crashed and burned long ago. All too often, the return on investment is dismal, the Washington Post reported, especially for arts and humanities degrees. In fact, analyses from progressive and conservative think tanks alike have concluded that hundreds of higher education programs, including those at public and nonprofit colleges and universities, don’t result in any financial returns whatsoever.

But because we’re fed the narrative that a degree (especially from an elite, i.e., expensive, institution) is “priceless,” the Post explained, many of us are willing to throw our money at it — or take out hefty loans — regardless of the financial consequences. That same mystique has also allowed colleges to avoid accountability for doing the bare minimum: ensuring that the education students bought from them will earn them high enough salaries to justify the cost.

We still have a ways to go before candid conversations about the ROI of college regularly take place in high schools across the U.S., Andrew Gillen, a senior policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, told the Post. But researchers are crunching the numbers so that students and families can start making more informed decisions in the meantime.

So far, progressive think tank Third Way has found that nearly 6,000 public, private nonprofit and private for-profit college and university programs — 16% of the program for which data had been reported — had zero financial ROI in tuition, according to the Post. Around half of graduates will earn back their tuition costs within five years, but nearly a quarter will take 20 or more years, based on their incomes and what they spent to enroll. Among those in the latter group, more than half will never earn enough to cover those costs.

A few of the more depressing conclusions from Third Way’s number crunching: Students who want to earn a visual and performing arts degree from the Berklee College of Music can expect to pay $193,700, but earn only $16,786 after they graduate. Those who want to earn an English language and literature degree from Whitman College can expect to pay $130,508, but make a mere $18,868 two years later.

In the early days of the Obama administration, the federal government had planned to cut funding from programs in which students couldn’t land jobs that would allow them to repay their loans, the Post noted. But colleges and universities sued, and the higher education lobby countered that “even the notion of using outcomes is preposterous — that what they do is rainbows and unicorns and you can’t measure it,” Beth Akers, a labor economist and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Post. The Trump administration squashed a version of the rule not long after it took effect.

In short, the Post explained, schools churn out students who can’t earn enough to repay their loans — on the taxpayer’s dime. All told, 5.3 million Americans have defaulted on their loans, owing the federal government $116.6 billion, while also grappling with the ripple effects, including ruined credit scores and debt collection. Since that money has to be repaid somehow, most of it gets added to the national debt.

At some point, schools need to assume responsibility for the future financial wellbeing of their students. Personally, I think we need to cancel student loan debt altogether. But short of that, colleges and universities should at least be brutally honest with students about how much they’ll need to earn in order to repay their loans in a reasonable timeframe. Academics need to descend from the ivory tower and emphasize that while intellectual pursuits are important, so, too, is gainful employment, and what it frees us to do. Also, enough of this “college is priceless” bullshit — the knowledge is, but the diploma definitely isn’t.