Is A College Education Worth The Debt?

A college degree has long been considered a golden ticket to success in this country. But with the current economic recession, some question whether obtaining a college degree is worth going into debt. Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance at Syracuse University; author Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, discuss how many are rethinking their high hopes of a college education. The men are joined by Hunter Walker, a recently-enrolled graduate student at Columbia School of Journalism, who recently wrote about his educational debt worries on the tabloid Web site Gawker.com.

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KORVA COLEMAN, host:

I'm Korva Coleman, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up - as college classes begin, our money coach gives students advice about smart financial planning. But first, walk into a local eatery or retail store and you may find some debt-ridden college graduates behind the counter riding out the recession with minimum wage paychecks. There's one thing that's clear about this recession: a college education does not guarantee a high paying job. So is it really worth it to go to college during an economic downturn? To discuss this we've invited three guests: Boyce Watkins, a professor of finance at Syracuse University; Richard Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University, who has written extensively about debt and education; and Hunter Walker, a new graduate student at Columbia School of Journalism, who recently wrote about his educational debt worries on gawker.com. Welcome to the program, gentleman.

Professor BOYCE WATKINS (Syracuse University): Good morning.

Professor RICHARD VEDDER (Ohio University): Glad to be here.

Mr. HUNTER WALKER (Student, Columbia School Of Journalism): Thanks for having me.

COLEMAN: Professor Watkins, let me start me with you. This heretical question: is a high school graduate who is heading to a four year college right now making an investment or a mistake?

Prof. WATKINS: Well, it's certainly an investment. The question is whether or not you get your return on that investment in actual financial capital or some sort of human capital or emotional capital or social capital. The truth of the matter is that this blanket notion that going to college will guarantee you a better economic future is not always true. You know, when I went to college, I didn't think of college as a luxury item as some of my friends did. I thought of it as a necessity. Which meant that I was going to college to advance my career, to get an opportunity to actually control my economic future.

So I didn't go to college and major in anthropology and philosophy. I went to college and I majored in business because I wanted to get a job. Now, when you have students who are going to college for economic advancement and they chose majors that don't fit that particular objective and then take a lot of debt on in the process, then, you know, you have to ask them, well, Did you plan it all the way through when you ended up with an outcome that you didn't quite expect? So I think that going to college is certainly important. I applaud the president's move to get everyone to go to college, but I think that we have to be very intelligent about what we expect to get out of our education.

COLEMAN: Professor Vedder, what's your view?

Prof. VEDDER: Well, I agree with most of what the previous speaker said. College is an investment, but it is also a consumption good for some. Some people go to college because they want to have a good time. And perhaps there's nothing wrong with that, as long as they're paying for it.

There are a lot of people who are going to college these days that are unfulfilled at the end of their experience.

COLEMAN: What do you mean unfulfilled?

Prof. VEDDER: Forty-five percent of people who go to college, four year colleges, don't get a bachelors degree within six years. Those people often have met with disappointment and their investment isn't particularly good, necessarily. Another group of people graduate from college and then have trouble getting jobs and end up taking jobs for which a college education is not really a prerequisite. Twelve percent of the male carriers in the United States today have college degrees. And I have nothing against male carriers with college degrees, but I don't think it's an absolute necessity to have a college degree to deliver the mail.

COLEMAN: Hunter, as you cited in your article a few weeks ago, the University of Georgia Journalism School has published a report and cited the horrible job prospects for people who are graduating from journalism school, and so you went to journalism school. What is up with that?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, I mean I didn't really see there as being many other options. After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked a variety of internships and I guess you could say entry level blogging or writing positions. And none of those jobs offered me any kind of long term stability or security, and none of those jobs offered me any kind of sustainable wage. So I sort of saw grad school as my only option to get a job within my field, however longer of a shot that might be.

COLEMAN: And when did you graduate from college?

Mr. HUNTER: I graduated from college in '06.

COLEMAN: Okay.

Mr. HUNTER: But I saw grad school as sort of my only chance, even if it was a long shot, at getting a job in my field that could offer me any kind of stability or a living wage.

COLEMAN: What are your professors at Columbia School of Journalism saying about the job market?

Mr. HUNTER: Well, as I wrote about in the first post I did, during the orientation, Dean McClemman(ph) was talking about how he sort of doesn't know many journalists who get into the profession for worldly concerns. And certainly all of my professors and also a lot of the students that I have spoken to are aware that we are walking into a questionable job market and I think, you know, there is no denial here that a lot of us might not be getting jobs and a lot of us might have a tough road through the next few years. And this isn't even just because of the recession. I mean the media industry has started to tumble and had it's own sort of financial crisis for at least, you know, the past three or four years.

COLEMAN: If you're just joining us, I'm Korva Coleman and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's pretty clear nowadays a college education doesn't always get you a job, but it almost always gets you in debt. So is it worth going to college? We're talking to Richard Vedder, Hunter Walker and Professor Boyce Watkins to find out.

Professor Vedder, a college debt is a real burden, so are we making a mistake to tell young people to pursue college no matter what?

Prof. VEDDER: I think some kids are going to college that probably shouldn't go to college. While I applaud the principle behind President Obama's objective of getting everyone some post-secondary education, in reality there are a lot of jobs out there that are being created or that exists that are not jobs that require college education, and the mix between the supply of college graduates and the jobs available is moving increasingly in the direction of having fewer and fewer jobs available that really require a college education in - relative to the number of kids that are available or a number of students that are graduating. We are starting to graduate, I don't want to say too many students, but it's becoming more and more difficult for new college graduates to get jobs, independent of the recession.

COLEMAN: Professor Watkins, for those who already have a bachelor's degree, such as Hunter, is it better to avoid the job market and to go to grad school or may be just become a waitress for a while?

Prof. WATKINS: Well, the value of graduate school really depends on what you are studying and what you expect to get out of graduate school. I encourage young people to engage in the act of dynamic thinking. That means don't just apply the rules that worked in your field 20 years ago. Journalism is a great example. The media has changed dramatically. I run a media company. I'm in media all the time, and the biggest mistake a journalism major can make is to allow 1985 thinking to dictate how they pursue their career.

In a field like journalism, for example you want to learn your field, figure out what it takes to be successful. It might - for example, I recommend double majoring in business so you can understand how corporate America actually drives the media so that you can actually control your own destiny, because the truth of the matter is that in some fields graduate schools makes sense. You know, in business, for example, you should get an MBA, but in journalism, if you're taking out $50,000 worth of debt like Hunter's doing and you're going into a field where the jobs are disappearing by the day, then you might end up in an even worse situation than the one you were in before.

COLEMAN: Professor Vedder, should people consider alternatives to university degrees - vocational training, community college?

Prof. VEDDER: Certainly. Not every one should, but a significant subset of our population would be better off going to community colleges, and then perhaps at the end of the community college experience, if it's successful, consider going on for a four-year degree. That often can save some money, to give them lower costs of community colleges. There are career colleges and vocational schools that offer certificated training that are non-degree in nature.

We still need truck drivers, for example. We need electricians, for example. These are jobs that require some skills and some post-secondary schooling can be very helpful. But a lot of learning that is done for jobs, for vocations, is done on the job itself, and so there are many jobs out there that do not require the standard college education. And some people, particularly those who are sort of, say, marginal academically anyway, perhaps it's a waste of money to go to a four-year school and run up a huge debt.

COLEMAN: Hunter, do you have anything that you would say to counter Professor Watkins?

Mr. WALKER: Well, I mean, the whole reason I started writing these articles was because there's this debate right now over the utility of journalism school. And I would say that especially with media changing so much, we need educated young journalists who are able to produce work at the highest level. I can't say whether or not any of them are going to have jobs but at the same time with everything - with every profession experiencing this financial crisis, I can't say that every MBA is going to get a job. And I think it would be wrong to suggest that that type of program, especially given that there's sort of a glut of MBAs right now, are going to offer any more security than anything else.

COLEMAN: How are your fellow journalism graduates doing?

Mr. WALKER: Well, a lot of the ones that I know are not actually doing very well, but I think that sort of - you know, there's larger questions of reform here that I think we need to separate from it, such as whether or not any degree should cost $50,000, and also reform within the media industry and reform within other industries that are struggling right now. And that doesn't - the crisis that we're having financially doesn't necessarily mean that the next generations can sort of give up and become truck drivers.

COLEMAN: Well, I'd like to thank you gentlemen for being with us today. Boyce Watkins is a professor of finance at Syracuse University. He was kind enough to join us from WAER at that school. Richard Vedder is a distinguished professor of Economics at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He's also an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He joined us from member station WOUB in Athens, Ohio. Hunter Walker joined us by phone from Columbia University in New York, where he recently became a student at the Journalism School, and you can read his article. It's titled "The First Rule of J-School Is You Don't Talk About J-School Debt." You can find that at Gawker.com.

Gentlemen, thank you all very much for speaking with me today.

Prof. VEDDER: Thank you.

Prof. WATKINS: Thank you.

Mr. WALKER: Thank you for having us.

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