Does College Pay Off? For Whom and How?

In our consumer-oriented society, the President proposes to make higher education more cost-effective and colleges more accountable for the quality of their product.

His proposals will be applauded by the Left and denounced on the Right, but a more basic question will be unanswered: Beyond individual benefits and upward mobility, what does America get?

As someone who would have never gone to college without taxpayer assistance, I can offer some evidence on that question.

For 166 years the City College of New York, from which I graduated, has offered free education to such as me, and what has the nation received in return?

Starting with George Washington Goethals 1889, who supervised building the Panama Canal, its graduates contributed to society the polio vaccine (Dr. Jonas Salk ’34), the Internet (my cousin Leonard Kleinrock ’57) along with nine Nobel Laureates in the Sciences and Social Sciences, a Supreme Court Justice (Felix Frankfurter ‘02), Colin Powell ’58 and literally many thousands of high achievers in scholarship, teaching professions and the arts (from my classmates Paddy Chayevsky to the creator of the Godfather, Mario Puzo).

The list of familiar names is very long, but the unfamiliar count for even more: those who worked in obscurity to make American society more civilized and humane as a result of the higher education that was given them when their families could not afford it.

When I went back for the 50th anniversary of my graduation, the names had changed from mostly Jewish, Italian and Irish to African-American, Asian and Eastern European…

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Author: ROBERT STEIN

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10 Comments

  1. Depends. Got a degree is English Lit or History? Well you better apply to law school or get your MBA as a follow up.

    Got a degree in aeronautics, nursing, engineering, or industrial production? Yea, it pays off. Pretty simple really.

  2. Just 10 years ago having a degree actually meant something. 20 years ago it guaranteed a higher paying job. 30 years ago a much sought after college education was rewarded and would clinch the job hunt for some. Today,it is a required piece of paper often for the most ridiculous jobs that pay squat.
    I know people who have degrees that cannot find work that pays anything NEAR what the job should pay. I know graduates who are working at jobs totally unrelated to their degree and making barely o.k. wages.
    Those with Medical and sometimes law degrees may fare better than most, but then they are spending upwards of $100k to get those degrees too.

    Degrees are becoming a dime a dozen anymore, and most young people know the competition is insane out there. With the cost of education rising and the paychecks of the jobs getting smaller, we are creating an extremely serious economic problem in this country.
    Even if you found ways to lower the costs of education and reduced loans etc etc., that diploma is still pretty worthless in a business world that 1. expects everyone to have one and 2. Wants to pay you nothing for having it.

  3. Two things. Like RS, I attended CCNY when it was cheap back when. It would be nice if that would be the case universally. Two, education used to be a way to teach people a lot of stuff that “rounded” them out and made for a better person. Greeks may have started it, but others including the Romans thought it made you a superior person and continued it.
    Does it work nowadays, I don’t know, but I’d wish as many people as possible would get some non-job specific education. English, literature, art, music appreciation and basic sciences (no the world ain’t flat but sheep in NZ do add much methane to the atmosphere), at no or little cost.

  4. dduck, we are of one mind

  5. I’m all for rounding out the education with liberal arts classes, very much in favor of it. College is one of the few times you are going to really get forced to think on things you would ordinarily pass on. Just don’t make it your major. I’ve spent a huge amount of time reading up on history and philosophy, but frankly you can do that anytime, anywhere. The only place you’re realistically going to learn how to operate a lab and do coordinated research is in college. Unless you’ve got $100k to spare, or more.

  6. If I was eighteen today and just wanted to learn how to make a good living I might pass on college. If you want to make good money there are things you can do that the training cost is nowhere near $100k. Think of something like being a plumber. This occupation would have the added benefit of never being outmoded. People will always need to flush and brush their teeth. Of course going to college is a lot more than just job training and there are a lot of good reasons for attending that have nothing to do with jobs. The problem today is also that things change very fast. Someone who say gets a degree in engineering will likely have to go back to school more than once to keep current and employable. Companies come and go too. None of the companies I worked for in the past still exist so you really have to look at things as being very transient and unpredictable. Being a plumber is sounding better all the time.

  7. CCNY is a prestigious school (according to a brother-in-law who wanted all his kids to go there). Affordable state colleges, not so much. A college, just like a high school, or jr. college, or trade school will give you a piece of paper which, like SK says is necessary for almost any office job. But getting an education is something you must do.

    If you are willing to learn, teachers – for the most part, if they’re not too burned out – will be so intrigued with a student who really wants to learn, that they will be very very helpful. My spouse and I have both done some teaching, and have been puzzled by why some students are willing to spend money but not time or effort to learn. For them, college won’t pay off and it’s pretty much their own fault.

  8. LOL T_O..perhaps because they are spending their parent’s money or have a loan ( not considered their money or even real money, like checks in a checkbook is to kids).

    “Being a plumber is sounding better all the time” :)

  9. I hope all you erstwhile plumbers have less arthritic knees than I have.

  10. SK

    No doubt that was some of it, but those students trying to get student deferrments from Vietnam had more reason to keep their grades up. Some did, some didn’t. And some, like us, were on the GI bill (and foodstamps) otherwise we would probably not have gotten a degree and we didn’t waste a dime or a class. And boy did it pay off!

    Being a plumber is an alternative and if you’re the only one in town a good alternative. Handy man is more in demand around here.

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