Media coverage misunderstands the value of a college education

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.

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  • Anonymous

    True the “fuid” majors (such as communication, biology, etc) would be trickier. However, even assuming the students will have income in the high range would still equate to a lower loan limit than the $57,500 max for undergrad; especially for just a two year degree at community college. The Career Center at all schools collect and research earnings figures based on program/major frequently and provide earnings numbers per major. So in that regard it’s possible to set loan limits by potential earnings by degree. If at the very least $57,500 should not be the same maximum at a community college as it is with a 4 year college.

  • http://www.facebook.com/verbalcupcake Sarah Fidelibus

    Michael, your response reminded me of the Bard College Clemente Course in the Humanities, begun as a way to offer low-income adults the opportunity to study the humanities: http://clemente.bard.edu/about/. The philosophy behind the course includes, in part, the idea that people can make profound changes in their own lives by engaging with the work of the humanities because such work allows people to develop the rhetorical and critical thinking skills that help them become individuals who can advocate for themselves and those in their communities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/verbalcupcake Sarah Fidelibus

    Finaidmaverick: I completely understand where you are coming from. I have also seen my share of students who are not yet clear as to why they have begun college in the first place (other than such reasons as, “That’s what you’re ‘supposed’ to do after high school,” and “My parents expect me to be here”). And you are right that many of these students will be deep in debt for an education that they do not finish or do not make full use of. But I’m not sure that correlating the amount of student loan debt someone is allowed to accrue and the 

    percent of their earning potential based on the type of degree they are pursuing” is a workable solution. Such a tactic might work for majors in which the degree leads to a very specific type of job (nursing, for instance, or accounting), but such a solution would be trickier to implement for the more “fluid” majors in which graduates end up in a wide variety of jobs with a wide range of incomes (majors like communications, for example, or even a science like biology).
    I think preparing our students for life after high school would go a long way toward helping them make decisions about what the best path is for each of them to follow. If the majority of our students arrived their first semester with a better understanding of what education means to them, why their education matters and what they hope to achieve while in school and afterwards, they could make better decisions about how they pay for their classes and how much loan debt they really want to take on.

    Thanks for entering into the discussion, Finaidmaverick. I appreciate your perspective.

  • http://www.facebook.com/verbalcupcake Sarah Fidelibus

    Thanks for your comment, Clint. I appreciate it.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Sorry I missed this earlier today. I’m fixing now. –Julie

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Thanks for letting us know. I’m fixing now. –Julie

  • Anonymous

    Hello…good piece. But the author of the New Republic piece you cite is Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, not Kevin Gorney (whoever that is).

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_YHLOX2TTF3YH3LVEEGXGYY5DLA loriscottcc

    Correction on author. It was Kevin Carey, not Gorney. 

  • http://twitter.com/mcduffiec Clint McDuffie

    Well said. You summarize the relevance and importance of having a holistically developed electorate and future generation.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that college is important. However, I work in financial aid at a community college and the biggest problem we face are students taking out thousands in loans when they haven’t even placed into a single college level course. It is too easy for students to borrow. Many of these students have been disillusioned by our society to get a degree at all costs. That’s the real problem. Many don’t graduate and accumulate too much debt and would have been better off not attempting a degree in the first place. But I don’t blame them. I blame people who push education as the answer. We have student’s coming to our community college with bachelor’s and master’s degrees who can’t find jobs. When I meet with these students I quickly find the solution to their problem isn’t earning another degree it’s fixing their attitude. But noone is going to tell them that. Stricter requirements for loan borrowing is the solution. Student’s should not be allowed to borrow when all their courses are remedial. Students pursuing an associates should not be allowed to borrow at the 4 year level of $57,500. There should be a limit as to the number of associates the federal government would pay for with grants and loans. Too many of our students think several associates are worth more than a bachelor’s and it’s causing them to use up more loan debt and grants. Bottom line is that student’s loan debt should be limited to percent of their earning potential based on the type of degree they are pursuing. They shouldn’t be working the rest of their lives just to pay off massive student loan debt and the federal government (funded by taxpayers) should be getting the best return on investment for each borrower and financial aid recipient.

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you, 100%. The University experience is much more than just “coming out the other end” with a degree in a field which you can work. If that is all that you are looking for, then go to a technical college.

    I heard a statement a couple of years ago, that having a liberal arts education would be the best determining factor to success in the 21st century, regardless of your degree. Simply because you would have such a broad base of critical understanding of language, humanities, science, history and the like.

    I suspect that there are a lot of recent grads with diploma in hand with nowhere to go, which is making them second guess going thousands of dollars in debt for the privledge. I feel for them, but at the same time, this too shall pass. The job markets will open up again and they will find their way.

    http://michaelmaczesty.blogspot.com