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College: A No-Brainer No Longer

Rick Green

May 20, 2008

Little lambs of high school, thank you for inviting me to speak on this special day, your high school graduation.

Many, if not most, of you are preparing for college.

Sadly, you have not been getting the truth. For years you have been told that "education pays." I'm not so sure of that anymore.

College just may not be such a good deal. It's quite likely what you get from college will only be a pile of debt and a vague notion of how to "think."

Today, I'm asking you to pause and think before you enter the university slaughterhouse.

A few weeks ago, Charles Miller, the man who chaired the Department of Education's exhaustive Commission on the Future of Higher Education, had this to say in a letter to Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board:

"Could the cost of higher education in the current form have reached a level too high for a positive economic return to society as a whole, as well as the individual?" Miller wrote to the group that wants you to believe that college is a great deal. "Graduating from college may no longer pay for the typical student."

College, Miller believes, is becoming a colossal rip-off.

The former chairman of the University of Texas System Board of Regents wrote that the "shocking conclusions" could very well be that "American higher education today has gotten too expensive for what it produces that education (a college degree) does not pay."

Colleges, of course, aren't telling you this let alone the number of students who never finish. They just want you to borrow, climb aboard the party bus and forget about life for four, or six or even eight years.

Which brings me to Michael J. Hogan, the new president of the University of Connecticut. His $170,000 Storrs-gone-wild inaugural bacchanalia no doubt has all of you thinking UConn is the place to party, I mean study.

But do you know that after six years, one quarter of the freshmen who started college in the fall of 2000 still had not earned their bachelor's degree at UConn? At Central, the number was four in 10, according to the federal Department of Education.

Sure, college can be challenging and students are working more, but if it is taking longer, why is tuition still going up? Why aren't colleges telling you about this?

Even the people that create income tax forms the federal government have found that the college financial aid system is "confusing, complex, inefficient, duplicative and frequently does not direct aid to students who truly need it."

Matthew Greene, who runs a Westport college counseling firm with his father and who thinks that college makes a difference over a lifetime, told me that not enough are thinking twice.

"The valid point is to question why are you going to college and are you choosing the right school where you will be successful," Greene said. "It should be a well-considered step."

Greene and others say it's worth considering a year volunteering with Americorps, taking a low-level job where you learn a skill or joining the military.

"There are certain sacred cows," a career counselor in the San Francisco area, Marty Nemko, told me. "We won't take a hard look at it."

Nemko recently wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education blasting the bachelor's degree as "America's most overrated product."

"The rhetoric is that to get ahead in the new world it is going to require a higher level of skills," Nemko said. "After the four and five and six years in college the amount of increase in those key skills is frighteningly low."

As an example, Nemko pointed to a 2006 survey of college students that found more than half of students at four-year colleges lacking the skills to compare credit card offers with different interest rates.

Meanwhile, the debt carried by graduating seniors has more than doubled over the past decade, according to the independent Project on Student Debt. In Connecticut in 2006, graduating college seniors had among the highest debt in the land, an average of $23,000.

So if you are going, enjoy college. You'll be paying the bill for a long time.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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