As college graduates across the country don their caps and gowns and shuffle across the stage to accept their degrees, many are questioning the worth of the thin piece of paper in their hands. If there was a return counter at the other side of the stage where they could exchange their education and degree for a full refund, how many would walk over and demand their money back?
A lot, as it turns out. A majority of Americans (57 percent) say the higher education system fails to provide students with good value for the money, according to a recent Pew study. The average annual cost of a four-year public college this year, including room and board, was $20,339, up nearly 8 percent from the year before. That means a four-year degree costs $81,356. That number rises to $129,316 for out-of-state tuition and $161,904 for private colleges. To finance that, the average student walks away with $24,000 in debt. “A lot of students feel as though they’ve been taken for a ride by the current system,” says Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Paid For.
It’s a concept certain to horrify the many parents who believe their college degree gave them a fulfilling career and financially stability, and who hoped it would do the same for their children. But a four-year college diploma has less weight in the still-troubled job market. A combination of strained state budgets, questionable management, and lower academic standards has diluted the value of a degree.
True, college grads do have a lower unemployment rate — 4.5 percent in April versus 9.7 percent for high school grads. But that doesn’t measure the number of grads who are underemployed, or who did not qualify for jobs in their chosen field. Some graduates complain they didn’t learn the right skills. Others say they got little career guidance during their four years, which left them feeling unprepared as they navigated the tough job market. “There is a sense that the higher education industry is pulling one over on them,” says Riley.
We found three recent college grads from a variety of colleges and backgrounds who said they would return their education in a heartbeat, and asked why they were disappointed with the experience and what they’d do with the money if they could have it back.
Benjamin Shore, 22
College: University of Maryland Business School
Degree: Bachelor of Science in Business
Grad Year: 2010
Total Cost: $120,000
Current occupation: Works as a dock hand and founded an online nutritional-supplement store
Biggest Complaint: Few applicable skills acquired.
job interviews people ask me, what do
you offer? I don’t know what to say except
that I have the ability to pass multiple choice tests.”
I went there for the same reason most people attend college: to get a good job and have more earning power. I want a refund because my business degree was hardly an education. For all that money and all that time, you’re supposed to leave college with a valuable skill set, but somehow I was able to get a degree and spend four years doing it with a pretty good GPA — 3.5 — without gaining one. A lot of the classes were easy, and were extremely bell curved. In business, you can’t take a class in people skills or persuasion, and that’s hugely important. Learning a couple of equations for a finance test or some rules about what side of the balance sheet things go on didn’t give me critical thinking skills. If I got a business job in sales or accounting or finance, I’d learn more in one month on the job than in my four years at university. At job interviews people ask me, what do you offer? I don’t know what to say except that I have the ability to pass multiple choice tests and I was able to operate within a complex university system. If I had the money back, I’d be able to fund my business and I could’ve done it four years ago.
Rachael Taylor, 28
College: Walden University (Online)
Degree: Master of Science in Psychology
Grad Year: 2008
Total Cost: $15,000
Current occupation: Works in marketing
Biggest Complaint: Rushed into a major that wasn’t useful and believes her online-only institution carries a stigma.
that wasn’t just a stupid piece of paper.”
After graduating from the Air Force Academy with a degree in English, it just seemed like the next logical step to get a Master’s, so I did. Psychology was interesting to me, but I didn’t look at what the end state was or what other fields would be open to me. I jumped into it, and didn’t think, ok, what am I going to do with this? I was too young and didn’t know enough about myself yet. My Master’s is only applicable in a couple of jobs. I don’t use it and I don’t think it’s factored into me getting a job. I paid upfront for it with money that I saved, but I would’ve rather invested it in something tangible like real estate or a small business, or even put it in a money market fund — something that wasn’t just a stupid piece of paper. There’s also a bad stigma associated with online-only institutions, so not only do I wish I hadn’t done it, I wish I’d chosen an institution with a legitimate campus. I don’t even know where my degree is. It’s like it never happened. It was a ton of work, and it was a total waste.
Rina Shah, 27
College: West Virginia University
Degree: Bachelor of Arts in Communication
Grad Year: 2005
Total Cost: $80,000
Current occupation: Works as a political communication consultant
Biggest Complaint: No career guidance and the curriculum didn’t prepare her for a job.
skip college. Every semester was a waste.”
Basically I feel like anything I’m doing now, I learned how to do on my own, and any success I’ve had has been self-taught. I look back at what I learned at college and I feel like I didn’t get anything. The school and the department were so big that it felt like you really had to fend for yourself and create your own experience. But here you were paying these people all this money. Advisors weren’t helpful, and if anything, they impaired my progress by telling me things like, ‘you can’t take this class this semester, you’re going to need to wait until the fall, which might delay your graduation.’ There was a sheer lack of structure. Nobody was really ever looking at the quality of what I was getting. I was just going through the motions of being in college, and paying them the money to keep the school running. It took me five years to finish, and the first year out was hard. My parents and grandparents had given me the gift of having no debt, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I sat around without a job for six months. I tell my high school sister to just skip college. Every semester was a waste.
Ashley Withers, 23
College: Stony Brook University
Degree: Bachelor of Arts in English and Psychology
Grad Year: 2011
Total Cost: $32,000
Current Occupation: Job searching
Biggest Complaint: Majored in the wrong subject and acquired too much debt.
degree that I’m not satisfied with and I’m in debt.”
I decided to go to college because it was the norm, but I didn’t plan properly or think about exactly what I wanted to do. I rushed into my major, and now I feel like my major is both useless and not exactly what I wanted. I feel cheated in a lot of ways. I originally wanted to do journalism, but I was working full time to cover living expenses, and that major didn’t fit into my schedule and required a lot of prerequisites. There are so many students at Stony Brook and you never get individualized attention. A lot of times you feel brushed under the rug. Professors seemed more interested in how the course is going to help them obtain tenure, and not in you as an individual. The future is going to be a struggle because of the debt I’m in. That’s part of what’s making me regret my education. Because I received a degree that I’m not satisfied with and I’m in debt. If I could get the money back, I’d be a lot better off.