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Is a College Education a Prerequisite for Personal Economic Success?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

After the 112th Congress effectively struck a deal last year preventing interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from almost doubling to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent for another year, many students from across the country were exultant. Not surprisingly, they deemed this bipartisan compromise (a rarity in Washington these days) as step towards lowering higher education costs and alleviating the crushing burden of debt threatening the futures of so many American college graduates. But this eleventh hour resolution, although widely praised by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, is nothing more than a temporary fix to a longstanding problem; one that cannot be addressed without painful and systemic reforms.

On Thursday night, I attended “Bursting the College Bubble: The Status of Higher Education Today,” hosted by America’s Future Foundation and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Moderated by Lindsey Burke, an education scholar at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on state and local issues, the four-person panel expounded on the value of a college degree, discussed why college costs are rising exponentially, and reviewed the government’s pernicious role in the American higher education system.

Conventional wisdom dictates that obtaining a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is a golden ticket to the American Dream. Indeed, as the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jenna Robinson explains, “70 percent of high school graduates go on to [pursue] some kind of [postsecondary] academic degree” for this explicit purpose. But despite this seemingly positive trend, students are dropping out of college at unprecedented and alarming rates.

Andrew Gillen, a fellow at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, explained this phenomenon in simplistic terms: “For every 100 students who attend college [only] 58 graduate,” he said. And of those 50 student who graduate, “only 38 use their degree in some meaningful sense.”

Let those numbers sink in.

In other words, only a small percentage of Americans attend college, graduate, and use their degree in a relevant field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as Burke explained during her opening remarks, “there are 115,000 janitors, 83,000 bartenders…and 80,000 truck drivers [in the United States] with bachelor’s degrees.”

Not only have recent college graduates earned degrees they don’t use (after having taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans to pay for them) but the labor market is moving in a surprising and perhaps unanticipated direction.

“The economy is not demanding the degrees we’re using anymore,” Robinson intoned, referring to a different Bureau of Labor Statistics study estimating that only 3 of the 30 jobs projected to have the most growth by the end of the decade will require a four-year bachelor’s degree or higher. “[And thus the Obama administration’s] push for universal enrollment is a step in the wrong direction.

Put simply, the Obama administration’s “push for universal enrollment” is a code-phrase for making college an entitlement directed to every American. In fact, the White House is publicly pursuing policies that would give the United States the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. Unfortunately, as each panelist pointed out, this initiative is merely driving up administrative costs and making college increasingly less accessible to millions of young Americans.

According to the Heritage Foundation, the cost of attending college has increased 475 percent since 1982. Last June, I had the opportunity to speak to Lindsey Burke by phone about this trend. (The interview was subsequently published in Student Groans, an article printed in the July issue of Townhall Magazine, available for purchase here). Here’s an excerpt:

“Part of the reason [government intervention] has led to an increase in tuition and fees is because universities have zero incentive to lower costs,” she said. “They’ll spend as much money as they take in. And so there’s been no outward pressure on universities; they don’t have to worry about their bottom line because they know students can just go back, request more federal financial aid, [request] more federal subsidies, and they’ll have what they need to pay these increases in tuition.”

Given the inflated price tag of college, the panelists suggest Americans should seriously consider whether or not college is (a) needed at all for certain career paths and (b) worth the time and money invested. Bill Glod, a researcher and mentor at the Institute for Humane Studies, went a step further and praised innovator Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur who has long advocated that college is not only a waste of time, but can hinder hard working and industrious young Americans who would otherwise benefit from entering the workplace immediately after high school. His eponymous fellowship gives “20 people under 20” a one-time, $100,000 check every year to start their own companies, effectively encouraging these individuals not to go to college.

In short, a college education is not necessarily a prerequisite for personal economic success anymore. Let’s hope the next generation of Americans figures this out before it's too late.

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