College’s Value Is an Increasingly Hard Sell

Higher-ed skeptics are acting in prospective students’ best interest.

The question “Is College Worth It?” provides a title for a 2024 book by Richard Ohmann and Ira Shor, a 2019 St. Louis Federal Reserve study, a 2023 New York Times podcast episode, and a 2024 Pew Research survey. It is also on the minds and lips of millions, many of whom are starting to answer negatively for the first time in decades. Phillip Levine and Luke Pardue have had enough of this thorny question and have taken to the Chronicle of Higher Education to declare, “Yes, College Is ‘Worth It’.” Their subhead: “It’s time to retire skepticism around the value of a degree.”

Strictly in terms of a monetary return on investment, college has been a wash for the average graduate since the 1990s.The Chronicle article is not as full-throated as the headline might suggest, however. The authors are in the unenviable position of having to acknowledge the ugly reality of the state of higher education while still affirming its worth. Though they dismiss most of the skepticism about college’s value as “hype,” they also take on three “substantive” notions: the “illusory” college wage premium, the vanishing wealth premium, and the risk of non-completion.

Unfortunately, since these complaints are real, they have their work cut out for them.

The college wage premium, the notion baked into the American mind that college graduates make a million or so dollars more in their lifetimes than do mere high-school graduates, is the topic of Ohmann and Shor’s Is College Worth It?, published in April of this year by Johns Hopkins University Press. Though most dissatisfaction with college comes from the political right, Ohmann and Shor critique college from a left-leaning perspective, concluding that “College pays off for some but not for most, making the college premium both true and false, real and illusory, accessible and restricted at the same time, depending primarily on race, class, and gender.” In the authors’ view, college “confirms existing inequities while presenting itself as an open ladder to be climbed.” Put bluntly, “The [college] premium privileges the already privileged.”

The college wealth premium, coined and studied by the aforementioned 2019 St. Louis Fed study, is the idea that, in addition to a significant average-income premium, the net worth of college graduates ought to be appreciably greater than the net worth of high-school graduates. Yet this benefit “has declined … noticeably among all cohorts born after 1940.” Of course, mere economic data can’t factor in other important improvements associated with a college education, such as health and quality of life. But strictly in terms of a monetary return on investment, college has been a wash for the average graduate since the 1990s.

Finally, these meager returns apply to those who are able to finish college. At least a third of students who enroll in college after high school, thus assuming its increasingly higher costs, never finish. They get next to no return at all on their investment, and many are saddled with debt. The real chances of non-completion are not factored into the notion of the college wage premium. A report by Third Way shows that, when this risk is factored in, the odds of college paying off are little better than a coin flip—and as bad as a coin flip for some of the most popular majors.

College “skepticism” is in the best interest of many prospective students and ought to be amplified rather than muted.Levine and Pardue offer solutions to these three problems: 1) choose a worthwhile program at a worthwhile institution to realize the wage premium, 2) understand that the ROI of a degree is in individual and societal intangibles, not in net worth, and 3) note that the risk of not graduating is eliminated if you graduate. This kind of sales pitch isn’t likely to pack classrooms.

The authors also protest that the cost of college is perceived to be higher than it is. Prestige pricing, the inflated sticker price of tuition before financial aid, is partially to be blamed for this perception. Yet, in the same breath, Levine and Pardue acknowledge that college is still too expensive even after financial aid, which prohibits many low- and middle-income students from attending. Defying economics, they claim that college being too expensive is a problem of “access, not worth” and call for more federal funding.

The overall tone of their confused Chronicle piece is that college’s value proposition is under an unfair attack from skeptics. But are college skeptics raising their concerns in bad faith? On the contrary, their “skepticism” is in the best interest of many prospective students and ought to be amplified rather than muted. Levine and Pardue ought to thank skeptics for pointing out college’s glaring problems, because that is the first step towards addressing them.

Britton Sprouse is a Marine veteran, a graduate of St. John’s College, and a 2024 Martin Center intern.