Is College Worth It? Why That’s Not the Right Question

The recent decision by the Biden administration to cancel up to $20,000 of student debt has accelerated both media coverage and public discussion of whether college is worth the cost. I would argue that this is the wrong question to be raising altogether. 

A better question to ask: Why do we no longer believe in education as a public good, worthy of investment of public dollars? After 70 years of investing in higher education for the white working and middle classes, why do we now seem to believe that this generation of students—proportionally more likely to be poor and of a racial minority—is no longer worthy of the investment? 

Generations of mostly white people benefited from direct government subsidy of higher education through the GI Bill, Pell, and federal student loans at a very low rate of interest. But now that demographics are shifting, there is outrage about governmental subsidizing of higher education. 

The history of public investment in higher education dates back to 1944 and the creation of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the GI Bill.  In combination with assistance with obtaining mortgages, the GI Bill did more to create an educated middle class than any other effort in American history. Dr. Elizabeth MeadeDr. Elizabeth Meade

In 1947, almost 49% of college admissions were veterans. But this benefit was unequally extended. While the Act did not explicitly bar Black servicemen from receiving the benefits, in practice most did not and were steered toward menial labor for their post-war employment. 

Since the creation of Pell grants in 1965, the United States has grown steadily more diverse; the percentage of white Americans has declined from over 80% to just over 60%. In 1975, the maximum Pell award covered, on average, 70% of the total cost of attendance at a four-year public university. Today, the maximum Pell grant covers less than 30%.  

During the same period, we have seen declining investment in higher education by states as well.  As of 2017, my own state of Pennsylvania ranked 49th in the nation for funding of higher education, with a stark decline of 34% since 2008. During this period, state universities have naturally had to raise their tuition to cover a greater percentage of instructional costs. 

The concern about the amount of the debt-load for today’s students is justified. There is no doubt these levels of student debt are deferring other economically valuable choices, such as buying a house, getting married and having children. Even so, a college education is absolutely worth the investment. 

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, people with bachelor’s degrees earn $2.8 million over the course of their careers—75% more than those with a high school education. With the average debt for a four-year bachelor’s degree being $28,800, the return on investment is clear. 

Even more, when citizens are educated, they earn greater salaries, pay more in taxes, contribute to the economy, and have better health outcomes. Education is the key to lifting people and communities out of poverty, which contributes to lower crime and a healthy economy.  

So, yes, college IS worth it. Its value is as much to the common good as to the individual —it is worth investing in as a country. The cost of putting college out of reach for all but the wealthiest in society is too great for us to bear. 

Dr. Elizabeth M. Meade is president of Cedar Crest College, a private women's college in Allentown, Pennsylvania.