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What Is a College Degree Worth?

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

What is college really worth?

A lot of people are asking that question -- and it's the cover story of this month's Utne Reader magazine.

My older son is 30, and my younger is 17. I'm hoping my two sons escape from the consequences of graduating into this terrible economy, which is going to dampen the value of not only a college degree, but of all those graduate degrees parents are paying for (and students are borrowing on) for decades to come.

The companion piece to the Utne Reader cover story is called "The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps." It highlights the plight of adjunct professors who require food stamps to get by. Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, for example, is a 43-year-old white single mother who teaches two courses in humanities at Yavapai College in Prescott Arizona.

She never expected to be on food stamps. Somehow she imagined her Ph.D. in medieval history was a guaranteed ticket to the middle class. Another college teacher in Florida is married with two kids. He's a graduate student in film studies at Florida State University.

Somehow he hasn't yet processed that a married father of two probably should not be getting an advanced degree in film studies. I'm not sure anybody should, actually.

Utne sees this as a plea for paying college teachers even more (raising tuition prices even higher). I see it as an indictment of colleges making money by enrolling students for whom there is no plausible career path with borrowed government money.

My sons are lucky. We were able to pay for college. By "we" I do not mean just my husband and me, but my husband and me and our parents.

My older son graduated with money in the bank, not debt. He spent years as a starving artist, but once he began to make money, his economic situation was quickly transformed into a situation of building capital, human and otherwise, not paying for his college degrees until he's 40.

I'm pretty sure that if I could not afford to pay for my children's college, I would advise them to live at home, go to community college for two years and then to two years of state school. Pay tuition as you go. Parents don't charge rent. Mom will throw in doing your laundry, no extra charge.

Save the Ivy League dream for graduate school, if you've made the grades to get into an Ivy grad school. (If not, don't go to grad school.)

Since both my husband and I are Yale graduates, it's kind of shocking to me that I think this.

But the truth is that as loans have become available and every teen is encouraged to borrow money and go to college, the costs of college have skyrocketed out of proportion to the reasonable return.

The average cost of room, board and tuition at a public university is seven times what it was when I went to Yale, according to Utne Reader.

Yes, a college degree is "worth it" in general terms.

It's just not worth going $50,000 into debt at the age of 22 to achieve.

There's got to be a better way.

The culture of debt being created for college grads will affect them for years to come.

Colleges have become complicit in teaching teenagers bad financial lessons that hurt their ability to make it. According to Utne Reader, at least 700 colleges have contracts with banks to market credit cards to students. About nine in 10 students use credit cards to help pay their education expenses. The average college student now has 4.6 credit cards.

I'm 51 years old and I have two.

We are going to see a lot more generational cris de couer, like the hilarious viral YouTube music video "The Ivy League Hustle (I Went to Princeton, B----!)," Overlaying its sexual complaint by elite women about the men they have to date, there is an amazing riff on the anomalous position of the overeducated artist, trying to persuade himself or herself that being economically marginal is a sign of moral superiority.

Borrowing more to pay for colleges that raise their tuition so they can enroll more film studies majors?

That is madness, and it has to stop.

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