Is College Worth It? People Who Are Worth A Lot Think So!

[Illustration from “You Draw It: How Family Income Predicts Children’s CollegeChances,” By Gregor Aisch, Amanda Cox, and Kevin Quealy, New York Times, May 28, 2015. ]*


Someone forgot to tell the rich and powerful that college isn’t worth anything.  I asked on Twitter: “Does anyone know a study that shows what percentage of the economic 1% goes to college?” I guessed 80-90%. It is 92%. Next time someone trots out the “college isn’t worth it argument,” I have a new answer.  If over ninety percent of people who have all the choices, future possibilities, a nice family wealth cushion still send their own kids to college, maybe they have ulterior motives for  telling the rest of us that “college isn’t worth it anymore”–because they aren’t listening to their own wisdom.


In a 2015 study by the team of educational economists led by Harvard professor Raj Chetty, even the economists were surprised that there is a straight line running from the people least likely to those most likely to attend college and that line correlates precisely with wealth. The wealthier you are, the more likely to go to college. 

I personally have dedicated my life to educational innovation and have worked with literally dozens of colleges and universities on that project because I believe higher education can, and should, be revolutionized for the complex world our students are inheriting along with a system of education designed roughly 150 years ago. But–and this is a huge caveat–while we are working to improve and innovate in our colleges, we need to get rid of the false, even fraudulent, argument that it isn’t worth it. It is.

We’ve known for a long time that college is worth it for the poor. A college education remains the single best way a family in the lowest income levels can raise to a significantly higher income level. College changes lives. Period.  And, it turns out, the rich know this.  92% of them, in fact. Don’t let anyone lie to you and say college is not worth it.

Here are three other fraudulent arguments about higher education that I’d like to get rid of and that, as a society, we should be addressing.

One, not everyone should go to college. That seems as if it contradicts the fact that college is worth it but it does not.. Despite the correlation of higher education and family income levels, not every one wants to go to college and our society should be providing options for those for whom education does not work. That should be their choice without them being made to feel like failures. Right now, everything about our educational system is de facto “college prep.”  We have all but dismantled vocational education, art, music, the performing arts from our pre-college curriculums in order to focus on a very small number of subjects that are tested by the standardized tests we give our students, supposedly to measure the “quality” of our schools.

Two, we should be subsidizing college so students graduate without tuition debt. This is an investment in the next generation and in all of our futures. We need what Temple University Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab calls “real college.” Those who do go to college should not have to graduate with the massive tuition debt now burdening our students and limiting their choices and their learning in college. More and more students find themselves in a situation of taking courses or pursuing majors for what they believe to be economic reasons of one kind or another–whether to keep a scholarship or, they believe, to prepare themselves for a future workplace.

Three, we need an equitable workforce for those who do graduate from college. No matter how “workforce ready” a student may be, if our society is not supporting middle-class occupations that our society needs, it is also robbing our students while robbing our society too.  The under-employment of recent college graduates is as significant a problem as college tuition debt. The stereotype of the college graduate living in their parents’ basement is not because college does not prepare them for their future as the current workplace is not designed for new workers. For example, although we now have a teacher shortage in all fifty states, teachers currently make 17% less than median equivalent college-educated workers whereas, only a few decades ago, they made 1% less than the median. What college student can afford to be a teacher anymore? This is a social problem, not an educational problem.

Many high-skilled jobs that require postsecondary training are drastically undercompensated. These include teacher, health care worker, social worker, or librarian (the so-called “feminized” professions), occupations that barely support the new worker and certainly don’t pay off tuition debt. We might add journalist, accountant, and many other entry level formerly middle-class occupations.

For those attending professional schools, say law or medicine, we have similar problems. Law school graduates with hundreds of thousands in debt cannot afford to be defense lawyers or district attorneys; newly minted doctors can no longer afford to be general practitioners or to practice OB/GYN, geriatrics, or public health. 

Those who pursue graduate degrees with the hope of being college professors face a job market where well over half of all teaching jobs are taught by part-time faculty, underpaid by the course, with no security and no voice in the institution. So graduate students cannot find jobs and undergraduates pay exorbitant tuition for those who run from job to job, course to course, often school to school, unable to offer advising, mentoring, or other crucial aspects of learning.

Many of the “problems of higher education” that we read about are actually social problems, not educational problems. I will continue to work with faculty, administrators, and students on new curriculum, new programs, new ideas that make college relevant to today’s world, but, as a society, we have to find far better ways of supporting college and those occupations for which a college education trains students and which our society desperately needs. 



*Source: Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States”

Special thanks to economist Susan Dynarski who answered my Twitter question, “Does anyone know the research on the percentage of those from the most economically advantaged families who go to college?”

For more reading about income inequality and higher education, see also: