LAURA SULLIVAN, host: From NPR News, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Guy Raz is away. I'm Laura Sullivan.
Americans are counting their pennies these days, taking a close look at everything from the cost of milk to their mortgage. And that means it's time for the age-old question:
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: For years, we've been told the surest way to make more money is to invest in yourself by getting a college degree. But with the cost of college rising faster than inflation...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Many are now asking...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Is college worth the price of admission?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Is college worth the cost?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Is college really worth it?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Is college worth it?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Is college really worth it? Or is it the big lie?
SULLIVAN: College does cost three times as much as it did 30 years ago. But since World War II, a house and a degree has been the American dream, a sign you've made it. In 2009, more than 70 percent of high school graduates enrolled in college - almost twice as many as in 1960.
Could so many people be wrong? That's our cover story today: Why do we continue to question the value of a college diploma?
KEVIN CAREY: What you see, if you look at the news stories over time - and really, going all the way back to the 1970s, when they first started to appear - is that a real formula has emerged over time.
SULLIVAN: Kevin Carey is policy director for the Education Sector, an education policy think tank here in Washington, D.C. He could write a college graduate horror story in his sleep.
CAREY: You start with some kind of very alarming, attention-grabbing headline.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: College graduates may be no better equipped for the work world than high school students.
CAREY: And then you find a recent college graduate in the worst possible circumstances, to lead off your story.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Chris Alfred(ph) followed the crowd at his high school, and went to college and grad school. Now, he owes more than $125,000.
CAREY: The key is to find someone who just graduated from college, who's working in a terrible job.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: I work at a call center, and I make $10 an hour, and I feel like a loser.
CAREY: And living in just the most abject circumstances. They're on food stamps; they've moved back in with their parents, much to their parents' alarm.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I'm just about broke, and I'm about to graduate. So it's time to pack it up and go back and spend some of Mom and Dad's money.
CAREY: And then from there, you sort of start to broaden the thesis.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: Everybody is nervous.
CAREY: And say something like, people are increasingly questioning whether college is worth it.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: A recent survey asked thousands of students at hundreds of colleges: Would you go to your school again? About 40 percent said they would not.
CAREY: You track down the experts.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: The bachelor's degree, it's America's most overrated product.
CAREY: And then you finish with a quote, saying: My life is terrible. I'm in a dead-end job; I'm sad; I'm hungry.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Frankly, I'll take what I can get because right now, I just - I need money.
CAREY: What is to become of me?
SULLIVAN: We'll get back to Kevin Carey in a minute. But first, one woman's story that sounds pretty familiar from two decades ago.
In 1989, Melissa Burke headed out to the University of Florida, even though people told her it might not help her get a job. And when she graduated four years later, it was pretty bleak.
MELISSA BURKE: There was a lot of - kind of static or tension in the air, around whether or not we were going to be able to find good jobs that would really set us on our way for careers.
SULLIVAN: It was the middle of a recession. She started to look for work early.
BURKE: So my friend and I decided just to head out and see the country, and really face the career issue - or the lack of jobs, or whatever - in the fall rather than deal with it right off the bat in May. So when I started looking, there were a lot of resumes sent out and, you know, a lack of calls back, and a lack of interviews. And I was very aware of the struggle, or the perceived struggle, in terms of landing that first job and starting off on that career path. You know, I remember hearing the stories. I mean, you know, I was featured in an article that - the headline was Grads Without Jobs.
SULLIVAN: You wouldn't know from that 1993 Washington Post headline that things were about to take a turn for Melissa Burke - which you'll hear in a minute. And that's one of the things that drives Kevin Carey crazy. He's the policy director at the Education Sector. And when we talked, I asked him: What's so bad about this kind of story?
CAREY: It's missing a lot of really important long-term trends. If you look at wage data, people with college degrees are making more and more and more money. And basically, everyone else is either staying the same or falling back. So the economy has expanded a lot. But basically, college graduates are the people who have reaped the benefits of that, and non-college graduates have really struggled to stay ahead.
SULLIVAN: So why do we love this storyline so much?
CAREY: Well, I think the kind of people who read the New York Times and the Washington Post tend to be more college educated. And so this really tweaks their anxieties. If you're a parent and you've spent your whole life trying to get your son or daughter into a good college and spent a lot of money, the last thing you want to hear is that that was a bad idea, and they're going to be coming home and they'll be unemployed soon.
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CAREY: And so people gravitate toward stories that speak to their fear and their anxieties.
SULLIVAN: So we've heard this story over and over again - this question, is college worth it? But it seems to really have hit a nerve lately. I mean, you have venture capitalist Peter Thiel paying kids - paying kids - to skip college. Why is it taking off so much right now?
CAREY: We always see a spike in this kind of story during economic downtimes because of course, when there's a recession, it's harder for everyone to find a job, including college graduates - although again, I would note that even in this most recent terrible recession, college graduates were less likely to be unemployed before it started, and they were less likely to lose their jobs after the recession happened. And in fact, only college graduates - they're the only segment of the economy where employment has actually gotten better during the first five months of this year.
But the other reason, I think, that there is this level of anxiety is that college is much, much more expensive than it used to be. So when people are wrestling with that cost-benefit equation, the cost part of it has gotten bigger and bigger. And so their sense of how much the benefits ought to be has risen as well.
SULLIVAN: So what do you say to people who feel like they have just been cheated by the higher-education system?
CAREY: It is possible to be cheated by the higher-education system. We've seen a lot of intention in Washington, D.C., over the last year about abuses in the for-profit higher-education industry.
The Obama administration took action just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, to put in new regulations that would prevent predatory for-profit colleges from inducing students to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for degrees that often have little value in the job market. This is not to say that everything is totally fine, and that any college will always be worth it. But the long-term trends about the average value of a college degree are very strong.
SULLIVAN: Is that what the economists say, too?
CAREY: Economists like to argue with one another. And so there is some dispute in the field about this. But you look at somebody like - for example, there's a labor economist at Georgetown University named Anthony Carnevale, who has calculated that on our current pace, we are going to produce 3 million fewer college graduates by 2018 than the economy will demand, that if you look at the new...
CAREY: Fewer. So we're not producing enough right now. And that's because if you look at the fastest growing job categories, they tend to be jobs that require some level of post-secondary education. And we have this continuing phenomenon of old jobs that have been around a long time, being redefined upward in terms of the skills that they require. And employers will be looking for those people with degrees.
SULLIVAN: That's Kevin Carey, policy director of a think tank called the Education Sector. He joined us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Kevin, thank you.
CAREY: Thank you.
SULLIVAN: Remember Melissa Burke? Well, what Carey said about a college degree paying off in the end was true for her.
BURKE: So I saw an ad in the paper for a job of desktop publisher secretary. I applied for that job, got it. And I think, you know, for me, it was not my ideal career path; you know, I didn't go to college for four years to be a secretary. But I really saw it as an opportunity to start working in the field, you know, that I knew I wanted to be in.
I started out - I was supporting the director of membership and communications. And you know, five years later, I had her job. So taking that, you know, initial step of doing a job that maybe I perceived as less than ideal, really, you know, was the first step to kind of, you know, starting my career.
SULLIVAN: Melissa Burke now runs her own HR consulting firm in Silver Spring, Maryland.