College is a huge waste of time and money — that’s the conclusion one might draw from a recent rash of stories and columns that cast higher education as an institution that is robbing young adults and their parents of their hard-earned or borrowed cash and leaving them with little return on the investment.
A recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, for instance, declared college “too easy for its own good,” arguing that schools are not preparing their charges for the complex tasks they will encounter in the real world. Meanwhile, Bloomberg News boldly and misleadingly announced, “U.S. College Education Isn’t Worth Price, Pew Report Says.” Business Insider also went with a misleading headline: “Is college worth it? 57% of Americans Say Nope.” And a recent Wall Street Journal story delved into the divide between college presidents and the rest of America over who should bear the heaviest financial burden. (The presidents vote for families, everyone else thinks that’s an impossible task.)
All of this coverage distorts the truth by inaccurately representing the surveys’ findings and by calculating the value of a college education in terms of monetary value alone.
Many of the recent stories spring from two events: the release of data from a Pew study that asked the question, “Is college worth it?” and the assertion from PayPal founder Peter Thiel (himself a college graduate with two degrees from Stanford) that we are living in a higher education “bubble” in which a post-secondary education is over-valued and unnecessary for many people.
In their zest for reporting on this topic, many outlets took information out of context, making it seem as though the researchers concluded that college is over-valued. Bloomberg’s aforementioned article opens: “Higher education fails to provide students ‘good value’ for the money they and their families spend, more than half of U.S. adults said in a survey.” But this framing is misleading.
Sure, 57 percent of survey respondents told Pew they agreed with the statement, “the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend.” But chapter five of the same study concludes that college grads actually earn a median salary of nearly $20,000 more annually than their non-college-grad counterparts. College grads make more money than they would without a college degree, but that fact is lost in an article claiming that a college education “isn’t worth the price.”
Further, buried toward the end of the Bloomberg article is the information that, “86 percent of college graduates said that [college] had been a good investment for them personally.”
It’s not uncommon for studies to turn up contradictory information. But it’s misleading to disproportionately focus on one part of the study simply because it supports the preordained narrative that a college education isn’t worth the sticker price.
What’s more, those 86 percent of graduates who found their college experience to be worth the money are smart to think so, as Kevin Carey explains in his excellent piece for The New Republic, “Bad Job Market: Why the media is always wrong about the value of a college degree.”
As the Pew study points out, even those who have graduated with student loan debt rate their education as a solid investment, feeling they have benefited both financially and personally from their degrees.
And it is perhaps this second, less tangible benefit — the personal value of college — that the media are least likely to explore. But it is the one that matters most.
At San Francisco State University, where I teach, students arrive on campus from a variety of cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Having the opportunity to listen to one another, collaborate and problem-solve together enhances the lives they will live after college.
What’s more, their classes — in philosophy, the humanities, ethnic studies — shape them into better thinkers who can sort through a wide variety of texts, information and perspectives. These skills will be useful to them in the workforce. More importantly, these skills allow them to participate fully in the work of democracy: when they are called upon to serve on a jury, or when they vote, or when they make decisions about where to work and how to spend their money.
There are serious flaws with the American education system. And part of the media’s job is to shine a light on those flaws and prompt the powerful to fix the problems. But perpetuating a tired and false narrative that teachers and schools do such a poor job that one need not bother with college in the first place does nothing to inform the public. Instead, it perpetuates misinformation and makes it harder to involve the community in embracing and improving American education.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the author of a New Republic article that was cited.