There has been much banter in the last few years that a four-year degree is no longer a worthy investment.  If it is an assertion worth challenging at all, then at the very least, this debate needs to have its parameters narrowed.  I would suggest the conversation needs to have its epicenter shifted: at what point might the practical benefits of a degree be eclipsed by its cost?

Kelli Space, a recent graduate of Northeastern University, began a website soliciting money to pay off almost $200,000 in school loans.  I initially felt sympathy for the recent graduate.  After all, to a certain degree, Kelli is merely a victim of modern times in higher education; tuitions for private universities are astronomical.  Had she enrolled and graduated even a decade earlier her debt load would have certainly been more diminutive.  But to a large extent, Space is to blame for her current quagmire, and she is by no means a unique situation in this country.  Space knew exactly what the costs involved were when she elected to enroll in Northeastern every year.  She must have been cognizant of her accruing debt yet, she made the decision to continue buying Northeastern’s product.  No one forced Space to enroll or remain there.  She had many viable options.  So the final bill arrives and Space has buyer’s remorse along with a debt heap the size of Mt. Everest.  And whose fault is that exactly?

Earlier this month Ben Bernanke was interviewed on CBS’s 60 Minutes.  Bernanke was asked by Scott Pelly:

“The gap between rich and poor in this country has never been greater. In fact we have the biggest income disparity gap of any industrialized country in the world. And I wonder where you think that’s taking America.”

To which Benanke replied:

“It’s a very bad development. It’s creating two societies. And it’s based very much, I think, on educational differences. The unemployment rate we’ve been talking about. If you’re a college graduate, unemployment is 5 percent. If you’re a high school graduate, it’s 10 percent or more. It’s a very big difference. It leads to an unequal society, and a society which doesn’t have the cohesion that we’d like to see.”

In truth, the complexities that compose income inequity are somewhat more complicated than simply whether or not one possesses a bachelor’s degree.  Though each may possess a degree from an identical institution, one who pursues a career in investment banking will undoubtedly attain a sizable disparity in income than one who spends his/her life as a social worker.   Bernanke is certainly aware of this fact, and many similar impacters, but truncated response time surely prompted his abbreviated response.  Without question, a bachelor’s is a sine qua non in today’s corporate world.  The more pressing issue is whether one needs to spend $200,000, and the ensuing years of repaying those school loans, to attain that degree.   Although education may be one of the greatest investments any person can make, it is certainly not a bargain at any price.

The average tuition cost of private universities is quadruple that of state/city schools.  I would humbly assert that the quality of the educational content taught in today’s private universities are not, in fact, four times superior than that of public universities?  Yet, private schools – not unlike their counterparts – continue to raise tuition costs, year over year, because demand continues to remain robust.  So what gives?  Like any product in a consumer market, different universities represent different brands for the consuming public, in this case, prospective students. Costs vary accordingly.  And yes, prestige often does matter to many.  But when university tuitions become so financially onerous that graduates resort to creating websites begging for money to pay for their school loans then something has clearly run afoul in our system.

We shall consider this discussion further in my next post.

John Brigantino is a graduate student in the Master of Science in Business Management & Leadership Program at the CUNY School of Professional Studies.  He enjoys writing, non-fiction books, traveling and the many cultural and leisure experiences Manhattan has to offer.