In recent decades, going off to college has become the de facto expectation for students graduating from high school. A college degree often is seen as the key to launching a successful career.

But the exploding costs (and related debt) associated with getting a bachelor’s degree, along with relatively fewer attractive new jobs for college grads, should prompt parents and students to reconsider whether four (or more) years of college is the best approach to post-high-school education.

"Two thirds of people who go to four-year colleges right out of high school should do something else." So argues former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett in his 2013 book Is College Worth It?, co-authored with David Wilezol. "Rather than simply swallowing the conventional wisdom and following the conventional path," Bennett writes, "more students need to make realistic assessments of their abilities and finances and then decide the best path for themselves."

Social scientist Charles Murray agrees. After examining SAT scores and other data, Murray has concluded that most students enrolled in four-year Bachelor of Arts programs shouldn't be in college. Their gifts lie in areas other than the academic. Besides, Murray notes in his 2008 book Real Education, except in fields such as science and engineering, a bachelor's degree is no longer a reliable measure of whether someone is truly educated.

The views articulated by Bennett and Murray go against the conventional wisdom that (1) earning a B.A. is the natural "next step" for high-school graduates, and (2) such a degree is the basic qualification for a well-paying job.

Their arguments are echoed by another contrarian, Richard Vedder at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He points to the growing "mismatch between labor market realities and college graduation rates," noting that colleges are turning out more grads than the job market can assimilate "in the technical, managerial, and professional areas where college graduates historically want to work." The result: as many as a third of college graduates — including many who go into debt to pay for their schooling — end up in jobs that don't require a college degree.

Of course, those who argue that most young people should get a college diploma can point to statistics too. "On virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment...young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education," concludes a 2014 Pew Research study titled The Rising Cost of Not Going to College. "[T]he disparity in economic outcomes between college graduates and those with a high-school diploma or less formal school has never been greater in the modern era," the Pew findings show. Likewise, an Economic Policy Institute analysis of Labor Department data recently found that Americans with four-year college degrees earn — on average — nearly twice as much per hour as people without a degree.

Why statistics don't provide the full picture

The earnings-comparison data may seem compelling, but such statistics should be viewed critically. First, keep in mind that the studies referenced above reflect the earnings of college graduates. Many people who start college, and take on school-related debt, don't finish. According to the U.S. Department of Education, four out of 10 students who enter college still haven't earned a degree six years later. At best, the wage-comparison studies show the value of completing college, not going to college.

In addition, as William Bennett notes, "It is important to remember that the [earnings] data are true only in the aggregate. If we disaggregate the data, it is a far more complicated picture." Indeed, a 2013 report by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company found that 41% of recent graduates from the nation's top colleges and 48% of those from other schools could not find jobs in their chosen fields. And a study by Canadian economists found that today's students earning a B.A. are more likely to end up in "routine and manual occupations" than were graduates prior to the year 2000.

Another factor to consider when looking at earnings comparisons is what social researchers call "selection bias." At least some of the variation in earnings between college graduates and those with only a high-school education is likely a reflection of personal qualities. In other words, the qualities that drive many people to earn a college degree tend to be the same qualities many employers find valuable and are willing to pay for (e.g., intelligence, diligence, creativity). One could argue that such intelligent, diligent, creative people may have enjoyed higher career earnings regardless of whether they earned a four-year college degree. Therefore, the variation in earnings outcomes could have less to do with college itself, and more to do with the people who "self-selected" into the two groups in question (i.e., those who went on to earn four-year degrees and those who didn't). There is no way to know for certain.

And finally, a critical reflection on earnings data should consider the larger equation. Yes, college graduates — on the whole — do earn more than high-school-only grads, but the cost of earning that college degree must be taken into account, especially if a graduate is still making school-loan payments. As shown in the graph below, when repayment amounts are subtracted from gross earnings, four-year college graduates are at an income disadvantage in relation to high school graduates for well over a decade.

Indeed, it takes a remarkable 14 years of work before the typical B.A. recipient reaches net-pay parity with a high-school-only graduate, according to the College Board. This is not only because of debt payments, but also because college students typically forgo several years of potential income while earning a degree. (See Education Pays 2013: The Benefits of Higher Education for Individuals and Society. ) Personal finance writer Scott Burns sums it up this way: "During all of those 14 years, college doesn't pay. High school pays."

All that said, there is no universal experience. Some students earn a college diploma in a timely manner while incurring little or no debt, then go on to financially lucrative careers. Others drag college out over more than four years, take on huge amounts of college-related debt, and end up languishing in low-paying jobs. Those are the extremes. The majority of students will fall somewhere in between, but most will take some school loans.

School debt is now the norm, and the amounts borrowed are rising. A study released last year by the Institute for College Access & Success found that more than 70% of bachelor's degree students use school loans to help pay for college. While the average debt load at graduation in 2008 was $23,450, by 2012 the average had risen to $29,400 — a sharp 25% increase in just four years. (Notably, the Institute study found that students graduating from colleges in the West and the South tend to borrow less than those who earn degrees from schools in the East and Midwest.)

The shifting cost/benefit picture

What are parents and students getting for their college-education dollar? That question isn't easy to answer. For one thing, early in the process of choosing a college it can be difficult to figure out the true dollars-and-cents cost of attending a particular school. Each college has a per-year (or per-semester) "sticker price," but the majority of students don't pay that full price. Instead, the sticker price likely will be discounted by means of institutional grants and scholarships. For example, more than 50 U.S. colleges and universities now have sticker prices of more than $60,000(!) a year (tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies), but a family's net cost will likely be much less than that. How much less depends on the student's academic or athletic prowess, the family's overall financial situation, and a particular school's ability to offer institutional aid. (All colleges and universities are required by law to include a “net price calculator” on their websites.)

Still, the full sticker price remains the "baseline" from which any institutional aid is subtracted, so the sharp increase in baseline prices is a key indicator of the rising cost of higher education. The table at right details the steep increase in average annual sticker prices since the early 1980s — at a rate more than four times that of overall inflation.

In a market economy, steep price increases typically are difficult to maintain without an accompanying increase in quality. People may be willing to pay more for an upgraded product, but they balk at paying more for a product that hasn't improved, or perhaps even has declined in quality. Higher education, however, has been able to turn basic economics on its head — at least thus far. Despite abnormal price increases (in comparison to the overall economy), there is little indication that those investing in a college education today are getting an improved product over what was available decades ago. To be sure, college facilities and technology have improved, but the quality of the education itself has not, at least according to the 2011 study Academically Adrift. The study, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roska, found that nearly half of students showed "no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills" in their first three semesters in college.

That startling finding buttressed the conclusions of an earlier report by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. That report noted "a remarkable absence of accountability mechanisms to ensure that colleges succeed in educating students." The Commission, established by the U.S. Department of Education, found "disturbing signs" that "many students who do earn degrees have not actually mastered the reading, writing, and thinking skills we expect of college graduates."

The apparent lack of academic rigor at many colleges may be disconcerting, but even more alarming is what many students are learning. As William Bennett writes in Is College Worth It?, "In today's colleges, much of what is taught in the humanities and social sciences is nonsense (or nonsense on stilts), politically tendentious, and worth little in the marketplace and for the enrichment of...mind and soul." That is, of course, of great concern to Christian parents, who may find themselves paying tens of thousands of dollars so that their son or daughter can sit under "progressive" professors who teach leftist dogma and mock long-held moral values.

Yet despite such concerns about cost, quality, and content, consumer demand for a college education remains strong — driven in large part by abundant financial aid available to students. Beyond the institutional aid offered by colleges themselves, the federal government and the states serve up an alphabet soup of grants, loans, and work-study programs. While such aid surely makes college more affordable for some, the perverse overall effect is to drive prices even higher.

Years ago, William Bennett formulated what he calls the Bennett Hypothesis. "College tuition will rise as long as the amount of money available in federal student-aid programs continues to increase with little or no accountability." In Is College Worth It?, Bennett gives a clear example that supports his hypothesis. He quotes Peter Wood, formerly of Boston University and now president of the National Association of Scholars: "[At Boston,] I attended numerous meetings of university administrators where the topic of setting next year's tuition was discussed.... Our job was to figure out how to consume as much [government financial aid] as possible in tuition increases."

The connection between more aid and higher prices is why any attempt to "make college more affordable" by bolstering financial aid works only in the short term. As government aid swells college coffers, the money is typically spent on expansion of faculty, staff and facilities. This results in ongoing higher costs for running the institution. These increased costs, "inevitably [put] upward pressure on tuition," notes Andrew Gillen, a scholar at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "Higher tuition, of course, reduces college affordability, leading to calls for more financial aid, setting the vicious cycle in motion all over again."

Forecast: expect change

The late economist Herb Stein once wryly observed, "If something can't go on forever, it won't." Applying Stein's Law to the higher-education marketplace, it seems clear that the model of rising costs and stagnant (or reduced) quality is not sustainable. And the marketplace is finally responding. Broad innovations are occurring in higher education, fueled in part by technological advances that are helping to cut costs and increase flexibility for students.

"The traditional model of college is changing," notes a report from the Chronicle Research Service, affiliated with the Chronicle of Higher Education. The report cites as examples online learning, hybrid class schedules (part in-class, part online), and the proliferation of for-profit colleges (where market discipline helps hold down costs). "The idyll of four years away from home — spent living and learning and growing into adulthood — will continue to wane," the report states. And the primary reason is financial. "The full-time residential model of higher education is getting too expensive for a larger share of the American population.... More and more students are looking for lower-cost alternatives to attending college."

Trying to tap growing demand for better-value higher education, some established schools are responding with options such as three-year degrees (i.e., accelerated programs) and no-frills satellite campuses (since you're not getting the frills, you don't pay for them). In Texas, several colleges — rising to a challenge from Gov. Rick Perry — are now offering bachelor's degrees for a total cost of $10,000. (To be eligible, students may be required to earn certain college credits in high school, attend a junior college for two years before transferring, or major in certain fields.)

One lower-cost option that has been around for years is gaining renewed attention: the two-year associate degree. A 2014 New York Federal Reserve study, reported by The Wall Street Journal, found that "paychecks for holders of associate degrees in a technical field are outstripping [those] of many grads with four-year degrees" — at least for the first several years after graduation. "If you know how to fix something or to fix people, you're going to do well with a two-year degree," College Measures president Mark Schneider told the Journal. "If you're in construction, IT, high-tech manufacturing, or if you're in a health profession, a two-year degree pays off."

Mike Rowe, former host of the reality TV show Dirty Jobs, laments that American society tends to view an associate degree or a technical certification as being inferior to earning a B.A. "We have embraced a ridiculously narrow view of education. Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed 'alternative,'" he wrote in 2012.

Ironically, good, well-paying jobs that require post-high school training but not a four-year college degree are reasonably plentiful. According to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018 nearly 14 million jobs in the U.S. will require more than a high-school education but less than a bachelor's degree. Some of those jobs (including air traffic controllers, construction managers, and radiation therapists) have median salaries significantly higher than the national median income.

But isn't a non-B.A. approach to post-secondary education "settling for second best?" Not according to Real Education author Charles Murray, "[Y]ou aren't asking the kids to settle for second best," he told WORLD magazine. "What you're doing is recasting the goal of education so it no longer is, 'get the B.A.' The goal is to bring young people to adulthood…having discovered things they enjoy doing and that they know how to do well."

Considering the options

What all this means is that parents of today's (and tomorrow's) teenagers need to re-think assumptions that have guided post-high-school choices for decades. Is earning a four-year bachelor's degree the best choice? (It may be, depending on your child's gifts and field of interest.) If so, is going the route of a high-cost residential program worth it, or would it be better to live at home and pursue a degree at a "commuter college"? Would a two-year degree be sufficient? Should your son or daughter consider a lower-cost (and perhaps more-marketable) education at a vocational school — or maybe a certification program in an area such as accounting or computer programming?

What about earning a degree online? In some cases, online courses are less expensive than taking courses in person at the same school. For example, through Penn State's World Campus, you could earn a bachelor's degree in economics — one of 19 bachelor's programs available online. If you earned such a degree on campus, the economics courses would cost $670-$770 per credit hour (Pennsylvania resident), or about twice that if you live out of state. Online, however, the per-credit-hour cost is about $500 — no matter where you live.

Online education is also available via companies that offer courses from a variety of schools. Fees vary, often depending on whether the course is being taken for credit. Among the most popular online-learning platforms:

  • Coursera — nearly 700 courses ranging from computer science to songwriting;
  • edX — about 200 courses from universities such as MIT, the University of Chicago, and Wellesley;
  • Udemy — roughly 10,000 courses on everything from math to marketing;
  • Udacity — mostly computer-related courses on topics such as web design and programming.

Making choices

All of which brings us back to the main question: Is a traditional, four-year, living-on-campus college education worth the investment? The answer, of course, is "it depends." To begin with, it depends on how one defines "worth the investment." Campus life has intangibles that aren't reflected in one's tuition bill (not the least of which is the very real possibility of finding a husband or wife). Such intangibles are impossible to judge in advance.

But an even larger aspect of the "it depends" answer has to do with the student. Is this young person "college material," or do his or her gifts lie outside of academics? "Students who have a high probability of graduating from a good-quality university are likely to find attending college financially worthwhile," says Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. "Generally [those students] are the ones who did well academically in high school and had pretty good scores on college entrance tests," such as the SAT or ACT.

Because the student is the key, the decision about what kind of post-high-school education to pursue must be a personal one. You can't simply assume that earning a B.A. at State U. or Christian Campus College is the "best" option. Instead, prayerfully consider the following list of ideas, asking the Lord for wisdom as you seek to "train up [your] child in the way he should go" (Proverbs 22:6):

  • Wait and work.
    There is no rule that says a high-school graduate must immediately enroll in college. Perhaps your son or daughter would be better served by taking a year or two to work and save. During that time, he or she can be gaining workplace skills, growing in maturity, and seeking the Lord about the next step. If that step turns out to be going off to college, money saved during the "sabbatical" will help cover first-year expenses.
  • Know thyself.
    One of the best ways for parents and students to gain confidence in making educational and vocational decisions is to get a clear picture of the young person's personality, skills, interests, and what type of work he or she is likely to find most satisfying. Among the assessments that provide this kind of information is Career Direct, an online assessment tool from Crown Financial Ministries. Reviewing the results may make a choice between vocational education and a four-year degree much clearer.
  • Study and reflect.
    If your child decides he or she does want to get a four-year degree at a residential school, do plenty of homework on the options, keeping in mind that cost — although important — is only one factor among many. Other factors include such things as location, size, and spiritual life. Visit campuses if possible and ask plenty of questions.
  • Take tests.
    You can cut the cost of college significantly if your son or daughter can pass Advanced Placement or College Level Examination Program tests (both offered through the College Board). Students who pass these tests can gain full credit for certain courses at a fraction of the cost of tuition. (Advanced Placement tests require taking related AP courses in high school. Not all schools accept credit for all tests.)
  • Make a transfer.
    Another option for reducing the cost of a four-year degree is to go to a community college for the first two years, then transfer to a four-year school. (Important: Check ahead regarding which courses will transfer!) If the student is able to live at home with parents during these two years, additional room and board expenses can be avoided.
  • Search for scholarships.
    Spend time at a library looking through books such as The Scholarship Handbook (Published annually by the College Board.) and Kaplan Scholarships. (Published annually by Kaplan Publishing.) These resources, and others like them, list thousands of available scholarships and explain how to apply for them.
  • Explore online learning.
    As noted earlier, there are many options for learning online. Online students now account for more than a third for total higher-education enrollment.
  • Consider the military.
    Military life isn't for everyone, but entering the armed services is an excellent way to gain a solid education at low or no cost, while also serving the nation.

As you consider these and other options, keep in mind that we serve a God who made each of us for a purpose, and He is fully able to guide us toward fulfilling it. "For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to will and to act for His good purpose" (Philippians 2:13).