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Nearly 90 percent of high school students in the graduating class of 2010 believe a college degree is worth it, according to a College Board study released last week. However, media outlets from the New York Times, to USA Today, to National Public Radio are once again raising the question: Is going to college worth the time, money and effort? 

The Wall Street Journal has gone so far as to question the investment value of an Ivy League education.

A college degree once guaranteed entrance to a middle-class lifestyle. While unemployment rates for college graduates under 25 exceed those for the nation, the higher a person’s level of education, the less likely he or she will be without a job. U.S. Census Bureau data still indicate that a bachelor’s degree can add $26,000 to a person’s annual earnings and between $500,000 to $800,000 more over a lifetime, compared to someone with a high school diploma. 

Yet, eight of the 10 job categories that will add the most employees over the next decade will require less than a college degree. The Economic Policy Institute points out that college graduates increasingly are holding jobs that once didn’t even require a high school diploma — including 18,000 parking lot attendants and 317,000 waiters and waitresses.

This is not to suggest that being a waitress or valet parker is not worthwhile work. However, a better question might be whether these jobs are what students envisioned when they acquired loan debts often exceeding $100,000.

My longtime college professor wife, Nushi, just looked up from her book to inquire, “Are you pointing out that Neil Postman asked this same question in his 1996 book, ‘The End of Education,’ and that Cardinal Newman posed a similar question regarding the value of a liberal arts education at the end of the 19th century?” This from a person with a button on her book bag reading, “College prepared me for life, but ruined my liver, credit and reputation.”

Perhaps better questions are: Why do students go to college? What do they expect to achieve? What is meant by “worth it”?

When asked why they are going to college, most first-year students say they want to get better jobs and make more money. The second most frequently stated reason for pursuing college is, “To learn more about things that interest me,” with “to gain a general education and appreciation of ideas” not too far behind. Nearly half indicate, “My parents wanted me to go.”

If students (and their parents) see college solely as a route to a good-paying job, they may be disappointed at the immediate return on their investment. On the other hand, if college is viewed as a place to sharpen critical thinking skills, consider the great questions and accomplishments of humankind, and as an opportunity to learn to listen actively and respond thoughtfully and intelligently, they may decide that college is indeed “worth it.”

As Donald Williams pointed out in the Sept. 1 Guest Commentary in the Star, “Education is a process, not a product.”

If preparation for careers is a primary motivator, students would do well to consider that while higher education increases lifelong earnings, there are fields of study that yield greater, immediate opportunities and rewards, such as accounting, engineering and economics. The question then is whether these fields explore the “things that interest me” that motivate many students to go to college in the first place.

For students seeking more immediate access to programs and careers that can improve their economic prospects, the excellent Career and Technical Education (CTE) offerings in community colleges may prove a solid investment. Numerous studies point to the significant academic and earnings gains that result from CTE programs. One study by the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank found that CTE course work in community college increased earnings of men by 14 percent and of women by 29 percent. 

Furthermore, community colleges offer high-quality programs at a tremendous value in comparison to four-year colleges, with annual expenses that are half those of UCs and a quarter of the costs at many independent (private) colleges. Frank Chong, former president of Oakland’s Laney College, now deputy assistant secretary for community colleges, says, “Community colleges have gone from being the stepchild to the golden child,” as they play an increasingly important role in making the U.S. more competitive in the global economy.

So, while this column will continue to offer additional perspectives, I invite our readers — parents, students, educators and others — to share their thoughts: “Is college worth it?”

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to thedean @tbrownassociates.com.)

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