An education is still a good investment

Let's address the economic issue first: the only thing more costly than going to college is NOT going.

Published: Friday, July 5, 1996


Page: 9A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

Allow me to digress this month from matters scientific to address an issue in higher education that reappears annually, like a sore that refuses to heal. I speak of the complaints of the cost and value of a college education. Aren't our students being well served by their investment?

Most recently, Tabitha Soren, self-appointed spokesperson for the alpha- generation of your choice, shot her sound-bite style bullets at higher education. You may wish to go out to your garage and dig out her column in the June 24th issue of the Observer (page 9A). But, be sure to bring back the whole page.

Ms. Soren apparently interviewed a few friends and decided that the rising cost of college was no longer worth the investment. She then rambled on about other issues, taking stabs at teacher contact, career counseling and faculty research.

Let's address the economic issue first: it turns out that the only thing more costly than going to college is not going. The situation was nicely summarized recently on National Public Radio's Sound Money (not available in Charlotte--are you listening, WFAE?). Chris Farrell, then a writer for Business Week, quoted a simplified calculation from the Economic Report of the President that showed the return on a college degree, including foregone earnings, was still about 12%. That is based on the average annual earnings being 70% higher than high school graduates, and used $10,000 per year as college costs. So, your local UNC system school's tuition is still a good investment.

It is odd that one of those interviewed complained of having accumulated $20,000 of debt, claiming it would take her 18 years to pay back. At 9% interest that would be $187 per month. You can barely buy a new car for that payment. Indeed, the median price for a new car is now over $20,000. And, I'll bet she would not hesitate to buy the car upon getting a job. Which would do her more good during her lifetime--her first hunk of new metal on a one-way trip to rust, or four years of newfound learning to better deal with the world? The knowledge and, more importantly, the new learning skills are the real return on your college investment. Not the sheepskin. Not even the 12%.

Too many students never figure this out--hence the complaints over not being able to "walk out of college and get a job". The more subtle lessons from college are apparently not recognized at all--they just don't get it. After completing several years of college and graduate school, I was struck with how much I still did not know. This realization, tempered with a confidence gained from what I did know, braced me for the unknowns of the future.

Student tuition doesn't buy enough teacher contact? Robert Reich's charge that too many professors are "simply into research" is unfounded. Yes, we professors do research--it's part of our jobs and an important part of our scholarly life. Indeed, we are usually hired largely on the basis of our research interests. But we take our teaching seriously, too.

Interestingly, one of the best things an undergraduate can do is to become involved in a research project. Faculty usually have a number of interesting projects in mind, many of which are on hold due to lack of time. Unfortunately, we don't often have funds to pay the student assistant, and when we do, we must compete against outside employees. While many students must work to pay their way, it is frequently the case that the student is working to make car payments. A wise student would buy a junker or bring no car at all to college, leaving time free for true academic immersion and priceless experience.

So, do any students get the big picture from their experience at of our fine universities? How about a good example?

If you brought back the whole page, as instructed, you will see the work of one student who did figure it out. To the right of Tabitha's diatribe is a delightful column by a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, Allison Taylor, a summer intern at the Observer. While I, as a telecolumnist, have never met Ms. Taylor, her writing demonstrates to me that she has acquired the tools to keep up with the world, to face difficult decisions. She debates a career in journalism vs. public relations. Real writing vs. PR. Dreams vs. bucks.

The UNC system served her well. She got it. I'll bet she makes the right choice