Gene A. Budig/Alan Heaps | Attending college: A big decision

Gene A. Budig/Alan Heaps | Attending college: A big decision


It's the end of spring and the beginning of summer, and that means college graduation for millions of Americans.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the almost 5,000 higher education degree granting institutions will award just under 4 million degrees: 1 million associate degrees, 1.9 million bachelors, 800,000 masters and 180,000 doctorates.

The data show that higher education graduation numbers continue to grow along with the percentages of those with a college degree. One-third of Americans 25 years or older now have a bachelor's degree or higher. That is a significant increase from the 28 percent of a decade ago. In 1940, it was under 5 percent.

But despite this rise, Americans are divided on the value of a college education. According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 49 percent agree that a four-year degree was "worth the cost," and 47 percent disagree.

This is a shift. In 2013, a similar question had 54 percent for and 40 percent against.

There are good arguments on the "worth it" side.

— College graduates have lower unemployment rates (in April 2018, the unemployment rate for those with bachelor's degree or higher was 1.9 compared to 4.1 percent for those with only a high school degree). They also make more money (it is estimated that over their lifetime, a college graduate will make $1 million more than non-graduates.)

— College graduates are needed for a healthy economy. The U.S. economy will grow from 140 million to 165 million jobs by 2020. Of these, 35 percent will require at least a bachelor's degree, 30 percent will require some college or an associate's degree and 36 percent will not require education beyond high school.

— College graduates add value beyond dollars and cents. They vote and volunteer at much higher rates (at double the rates of high school graduates) and are significantly healthier (including lower smoking rates and higher exercise rates).

But there are also good arguments on the "against it" side.

— College is expensive. About 40 percent of adults below the age of 30 have student debt. The median student loan debt is $17,000, but this varies considerably. A quarter owe $7,000 or less, and a quarter owed $43,000 or more.

— College is time consuming. Only about a third of those attending public four-year institutions receive their degree in four years. More than a third take six years or longer.

— Economic "returns" vary tremendously depending on factors such as college attended and major. For example, the average starting salary for an electrical engineering degree is $62,000. For social work it is $37,000.

— There are real and varied economic opportunities open to those without a college degree including paralegal, carpenter, web developer and appliance repair.

While the data show that "on average" it makes sense to attend and graduate from college, none of us is "average." We all have different backgrounds, aspirations and life circumstances. Decisions as important as this should not be automatic. Whether to attend college, and when to attend, should take into account all those factors that make us individuals.

Gene A. Budig is the former president/chancellor of three major universities. He was also president of baseball's American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.