The Monitor's View

Is college a scam?

A YouTube video argues ‘yes.’ But better higher education, not less, is what's really needed.

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Is a college education the biggest scam in US history?

That’s the conclusion of a YouTube video called “College Conspiracy” that’s drawn more than 2.1 million views online.

The theme has been picked up across that site, often by college students themselves, in videos with angry titles like “My Bachelor’s Degree is Worthless,” “College is a Rip-off,” and “College is an Evil Debt Trap.”

With a tough job market, students (and their parents) are making a tough calculation: What will I really learn in college? Will it cost me more in time and money than it’s worth?

One set of statistics shows that hundreds of thousands of college graduates today hold bottom-rung positions such as “waiter” or “cashier” that hardly need a degree in business administration. That’s a discouraging thought when a four-year-degree could easily cost $100,000 or more.

One argument being heard is that colleges and universities are too often in business to inflate their enrollments with students who don’t really belong there – a way to rake in money and create or keep jobs in academia.

And what about billionaire college dropouts, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose rocket-ride to fame and fortune in his early 20s was shown in the movie “The Social Network”? Entrepreneur Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, has even paid a number of talented students $100,000 apiece to drop out of college – which he sees as a waste of their time – so that they can quickly begin careers as high-tech entrepreneurs.

It’s fine to question the conventional assumption that a college education is always a ticket to a better life. Not everyone is cut out for college, and post-high school vocational training is a better choice for some.

But the United States needs more well-educated college graduates, not fewer, to compete in the world economy. The era when high school dropouts or even high school graduates could find steady, good-paying jobs is fading – and quickly.

Those blue-collar jobs aren’t coming back in a high-tech world. For every genius who skips college and makes a fortune, there are thousands who miss out on the opportunity in a college education to vastly improve their own lives and build a stronger America.

Consider this: The current unemployment rate is 9.1 percent. But the unemployment rate for college graduates (bachelor’s or higher) is 4.3 percent, a number that has actually dropped from 5 percent a year ago. Unemployment for high school grads stands at 9.6 percent, while high school dropouts must contend with a 14.6 percent jobless rate.

Certainly colleges and universities must do a better job of providing young Americans with an education that will stand up to the demands of the 21st century. They also must look at how to make education more affordable. More use of online course instruction is one way to help bring down costs and open up access.

But today’s gloomy job picture can also blot out the big-picture benefits of college. On average, college graduates earn higher wages, pay more taxes, are more likely to vote, and are more likely to enjoy their jobs. They’re even more likely to read to their kids or take them to visit a museum or library.

The case for college still can be made on strictly financial terms. But that’s only part of the picture.

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