Illustration by Doug Thompson
If you think colleges and universities fail to provide good value for the money, you join a majority of Americans who feel the same way.
A recent telephone survey of 2,142 adults ages 18 and older by the Pew Research Center, an authoritative nonpartisan "fact tank," found that 57 percent of Americans are sour or, at best, lukewarm on the value provided by the nation's system of higher education.
More precisely, 42 percent of the respondents rated college value as "only fair," and 15 percent declared that the value was "poor." Moreover, 75 percent of those surveyed said college was too expensive for most Americans.
The nation's sagging economy and high unemployment rate, along with escalating college costs and mounting student debt, have sparked a re-examination of the value of the college experience.
And yet economics dictate why people still go to college: Graduates of four-year schools earn about $1 million more throughout their careers than their less-educated peers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They also have an easier time finding work, especially in tough economic times.
For example, the Brookings Institution says that among 23- to 24-year-olds not attending school in 2010, 88 percent of four-year college graduates had jobs, compared with 64 percent of high-school graduates. As for those who completed some college (a statistic that includes people with associate's degrees), the rate was 79 percent.
These are among the reasons why 94 percent of parents in the Pew survey say they expect their child to attend college, despite qualms about its intrinsic worth expressed in study after study.
A national survey (spanning 2006-10) by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University found that only about half the jobs obtained by new college graduates actually require a four-year degree. Yet 62 percent of those graduates believe they will need even more formal education to be successful in their careers.
Also, the median starting salary for new college graduates who entered the workforce in 2009-10 was 10 percent lower than those who started working in 2006-07, according to the survey.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that of the 30 career fields likely to show the fastest growth over the next decade, only seven, or 23 percent, require a bachelor's degree.
Moreover, only two of the top 10 fastest-growing career fields require college — accounting and post-secondary teaching, which calls for a master's or a doctoral degree.
College debt also has become a defining issue for many students. FinAid.org, a website dedicated to financial aid for students, found that the average student-loan debt for graduating seniors nationwide was $23,186 in 2008.
In a 2009 study, the Institute for College Access and Success placed the average student debt (at all four-year public and private, nonprofit institutions in the state) at $19,918. Fifty-seven percent of Virginia college graduates carried debt, according to the report.
The highest debt load among public schools was at Virginia Commonwealth University, where graduates had an average debt of $22,864; Lynchburg College, at $30,954, had the highest average debt for the state's private schools. Six private colleges and one public university did not report student debt to the institute.
Meanwhile, college costs in the commonwealth have been rising steadily, while government support for higher education has been just as steadily dropping.
In a report issued in July 2010, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) noted that in constant dollars, tuition and mandatory fees have increased by 131 percent in the last 25 years, and 105 percent since the start of the 21st century.
SCHEV also noted that 10 years ago (2001-02) the state was shouldering 77 percent of the cost of in-state undergraduate education. By fiscal year 2010-11, the state was paying just 55 percent.
These figures encompass just tuition and mandatory fees; they do not include the costs of room and board, books, transportation and other expenses.
In a recent presentation to the Virginia House Appropriations Committee, SCHEV reported that state General Fund appropriations per full-time-equivalent student had dropped 49.1 percent between fiscal years 2001 and 2011.
SCHEV warned legislators that "dramatic fluctuations in state funding present a tremendous challenge to the well-being of our public institutions of higher education and the Commonwealth's students and families."
Meanwhile, some in the state, taking a more global view of the situation, are working to increase the number of Virginians who have college degrees. Only 21.6 percent of Virginians aged 25 to 64 had a bachelor's degree in a 2008 community survey conducted by the U.S. Census.
An aggressive campaign called Grow By Degrees, mounted last year by the Virginia Business Higher Education Council and endorsed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, aims to increase the number of Virginians with college degrees to 50 percent. In other words, 100,000 more undergraduate degrees by 2025.
If they reach that goal, Virginia would become one of the best-educated states in the nation and consequently a breeding ground for highly qualified workers and leaders in personal income, council members say.
By 2018, according to the George-town University Center on Education and the Workforce, 64 percent of Virginia jobs will require post-secondary education, and these workers need to come from somewhere.