College Worth the Cost, But It Must Become More Affordable

College Worth the Cost, But It Must Become More Affordable
June 10, 2014/Detroit Free Press

By Julia Grant

College is a waste of time and money. Borrowing money to attend classes taught by ivory tower intellectuals is like scattering your dollars to the wind — only worse because of the heavy interest you’ll accumulate. You’ll be eating takeout food in your parents’ basement, and surfing the net instead of being gainfully employed — all because you weren’t sufficiently prepared by your expensive alma mater to get yourself a decent job.

We’ve heard these laments all too often, on the Internet and in the national news media. There are the who believe that they already have the technological know-how to initiate new enterprises, and yet another group of disgruntled college grads who seem to think that jobs should be handed out along with their degree.

But try telling Ruben Watson — head of the Michigan State University College Advising Corps and a first-generation-college student himself — that college is a waste of time. Watson and members of both the Michigan and National College Advising Corps help students in low-income and underserved schools complete college application forms, attend college fairs, and even assist parents with filling out the dreaded financial aid forms, otherwise known as FAFSA. Both Michigan State and the University of Michigan send graduates to work in rural and urban schools where potentially first-generation college students are numerous. Watson claims that college opened new doors of professional opportunity for him and enriched his life in ways that he had never imagined.

The whoops of joy and tears with which college acceptance letters are greeted at schools served by the corps are testaments to the fact that acceptance into college translates into acceptance into American society itself.

It is ironic that amid the complaints about the uselessness of college, organizations such as the Michigan College Access Network are avidly working to get more students to apply to college, including those who are least likely to enroll. We need more, not fewer, college graduates. The U.S. has fallen from its place as the country with the most college graduates — a status it held as recently as 1990 — to No. 12, a situation that is certainly not enhancing our economic competitiveness.

Rising student debt and tuition make many leery about the value of the degree. In 2010, President Barack Obama set into place a plan that would allow students to use only 10% of their income to repay student loans. On Monday, Obama rolled out a new plan that would extend this benefit to a broader range of students, including those who received loans before 2007 and or stopped borrowing by October 2011. In addition, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed legislation that would permit about 25 million Americans to refinance their loans at lower rates, significantly decreasing the debt burden.

Lessening the student debt load is absolutely essential if we are to foster college attendance. Further expansions of Pell Grants and tying them to the cost of living should also be on our agenda in order to give the phrase “equal opportunity” real meaning.

These initiatives to make college more affordable are worth our investment. College graduates continue to make more money than their non-college graduate peers. The gap between the incomes of high school graduates and those with college degrees increases over the lifespan. Over the course of a lifetime, the average college graduate can expect to make 65% more than their non-college graduate peer. Sure, some recent college grads aren’t getting jobs right out of college, but most accumulate lifetime earnings that far surpass those without the degree. The arguments for a more vocational education are also misleading. Research shows that students with professional degrees such as accounting and engineering may make more money in the years immediately following college, students with liberal arts degree do just as well and even better economically over the span of a lifetime.

Just as important, graduates tend to be more engaged in their jobs, have better health outcomes, spend more time with their children, and are more actively involved in their communities.

We should not give up on college, but we need all of the political will we can muster to make college affordable and to ensure that students who do get into college have the financial wherewithal and academic support to graduate. College is far from worthless for those who attend quality institutions, graduate, and work hard to make their degree work for them. A college degree has long been a component of the American dream.

Let’s not make that dream a “dream deferred” as poet Langston Hughes would call it, but an achievable goal for the majority of Michigan students, who have the ability, the guts, and the willingness to make the dream a reality.

Julia Grant is associate dean of James Madison College of Public Affairs at Michigan State University.

Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (Archive on Wednesday, November 11, 2015)
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