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It seems that post-secondary education has become an increasingly prevalent issue as of late. In Quebec, Months of student protests over tuition hikes (morphing into a more general protest against topics ranging from corruption, sexual exploitation of women, to capitalism in general). In the United States, concerns over the affordability of a college education continue to rise, with many graduates left with tens of thousands of dollars of debt and limited job prospects. In a tumultous economic climate dominated by high unemployment, austerity budgets, and growing income inequality, it seems that an increasing number of people are questioning whether or not a university education (or any post-secondary for that matter) is worth it.
This debate, however, is mostly confined to the U.S. The debate in Canada is centred much more around tuition costs, affordability, and accessibility. For this entry, however, I would like to focus on the United States, where tuition costs are significantly higher than any other country in the OECD. With the average cost of an academic year at 4-year institutions exceeding $20,000, it is not surprising that student debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion, a truly sobering number given the heightened levels of youth unemployment (around 13% for those aged 20-24)
Not surprisingly, the debate over high education seems to be divided on partisan lines. Those on the political right argue that the issue is too many ‘worthless’ liberal arts degree holders in this Forbes article, while those on the left argue that the cost of post-secondary is too much of a burden, with Bill Maher going as far as to question whether or not college is worth it anymore.
I strongly disagree with both assessments, though there is truth to each. While the cost of a undergraduate degree in the United States is astronomical, it is still worth it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the overall unemployment rate of persons with at least a Bachelor’s degree is 5%, compared to 16.6% for high school dropouts and 11.7% for those with only a high school education. In terms of income it is even clearer that a post-secondary education is worth it. In the U.S., individuals with at least a Bachelor’s degree have a median income of $47,900, whereas those who only completed high school have a median income of about $28,000. High school dropouts drop even lower, to a median income of only $19,400 (data can be found here). In Canada, the numbers are similar. Statistics Canada reports that - across all age groups - those with a university education, a college education, and a trades education have average incomes of $57,000, $36,785, and $34,670 respectively. Meanwhile, average income for high school graduates is only $28,000.
It is a mistake for current post-secondary students to assume that they will immediately find lucrative employment after graduation. The stats suggest otherwise, with university grads in the 20-24 age range making only $15,000 in Canada. So, you have to be in it for the long haul. Expect to be underemployed in the first few years. The payoff over your lifetime is certainly worth it.
The Forbes article I linked to earlier argues that the solution to America’s post-secondary woes is to simply eliminate the humanities and liberal arts from college campuses. The author makes the argument that “those who still wanted to study zoology, anthropology, philosophy, art history and humanities could read the books during their Starbucks barista work breaks”. Of course, this is so, so wrong on so many levels…but I won’t get into that. The overall article does have a decent point - some majors simply do not bring as many employment opportunities as others. For example, graphic design majors between ages 25-29 had a 9.2% unemployment rate in 2009, while nursing majors had only a 1.5% unemployment rate.
The solution is not to eliminate these programs. And it is not to skip out on college. The statistics strongly indicate the benefit of a post-secondary education in the long run - but maybe not in the first few years after graduation. For Canadian students who face lower tuition costs, the prospect of debt should not be a concern. For U.S. students facing student loan debt ranging from $60,000 to $100,000, its more of a concern, but with sound finanical planning I believe it is possible.
In an increasingly globalized world, with growing competition from other countries, the United States especially must ensure that they maintain a highly educated workforce. Otherwise they will undoubtedly lag behind.Despite the costs, a college education of some kind is most definitely worth it.