Is College Really Worth the Lifetime of Debt that Follows?

Students have racked up a trillion dollars of debt in the U.S. Experts on higher education are questioning the value of college degrees, giving examples of the best and worst schools, and offering ways to learn for a lot less.


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Students have racked up a trillion dollars of debt in the U.S. Experts on higher education are questioning the value of college degrees, giving examples of the best and worst schools, and offering ways to learn for a lot less.

WASHINGTON - For the first time ever, debt from attending college now outweighs credit card debt.

"Parents are going into their pension savings to afford colleges," Dr. Thomas Lindsay, with the Austin-based Center for Higher Education, said.

"Students have racked up a trillion dollars of debt," Lindsay said.

"The average American student graduates with $26,600 in student debt," John Zmirak, editor-in-chief of the guide Choosing the Right College, said. "That means if they marry another average student, they owe $53,000 starting out."

Tenured Radicals

These experts on higher education also question the value of today's college degrees.

"Fifty-seven percent of prospective students think that college does not deliver value worth the cost. Seventy-five percent in the same survey say that college is simply unaffordable today," Lindsay said.

Zmirak believes many professors are tenured radicals more interested in writing books than teaching.

"While graduate students from Thailand, who are living on Ramen noodles, teach the actual students who are paying $40,000 a year. The system is unbelievably corrupt, ludicrously expensive," Zmirak explained.

"Survey after survey shows that colleges have completely yielded to and impose on their students ideological conformity," Lindsay added.

As the experts work to reform the system, students still need help figuring out how to get a good education without plunging into debt.

Suggestions include staying in your own state, which can often keep tuition below $10,000 a year.

"You have been paying property taxes or your parents have all their life so that you could pay in-state tuition at your local state university," Zmirak pointed out.

Good, Bad, and Expensive

Zmirak's book lists the good and bad about dozens and dozens of public and private colleges and universities.

For example, it credits the University of Maryland for good research, music and arts, but gives bad marks for its lack of a strong, general education.

You can actually fulfill important requirements with classes like "How Safe is Your Salad?"

The book has praise for Virginia's George Mason University because of its top notch economists who extol free markets, a rarity on many campuses these days.

There's an institute on campus dedicated just to studying the benefits of freedom. But, on the other hand, GMU's advising of students is labeled "anemic."

One thing Zmirak stresses is that you do not need to attend a big name university and go tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get a good education.

He pointed out that a nearby community college can teach you great skills without the great debt.

"You're more likely to end up with $5,000 to $10,000 debt. Or if you're smart and you work campus jobs or work summers, you might graduate debt-free," he said.

Such schools can be great for those not ready for a full-on university education.

"If your kid really doesn't know what he wants to do, he has community college written all over him," Zmirak said.

And some high school graduates just aren't ready for college at all.

"They should go spend a year or two in the military or working lifting boxes in a warehouse," he suggested. "Anything for them to see, 'Hey, wait, I really don't want to be a manual laborer for the rest of my life. I think I better hunker down.' And when they go to college they will take it much more seriously for they will see the alternative," he said.

Do Your Research

If you are set on a four-year or more university, do your research. Then you'll know to beware of schools like Wesleyan University, which Zmirak's book entitles "Do Not Enter."

"It's a place with coed bathrooms where people shower with their doors open. Where there's pornographic chalking graffiti all over the campus. Where the gay and lesbian student center has a pornography lending library," Zmirak said.

He had a warning about Ohio's Oberlin for its treatment of pro-life student activists.

"Every few years someone tries to start a pro-life group, and then gets persecuted and it goes out of existence," Zmirak said.

And if you're afraid of piling up college debt, then steer clear of New York's Sarah Lawrence.

"(It's) the most expensive and one of the most crazily liberal colleges in America," Zmirak said of Sarah Lawrence. "(It) costs $60,000 a year to attend. That's like buying a new Mercedes every year for four years. The only difference is you don't get a car."

With good research, you'll find there are colleges such as Virginia's Regent University that keep costs down by offering plenty of online courses as well as classroom instruction.

Research will help you find which colleges have the greatest number of professors for the least amount of students.

Author's Favorites

For instance, Zmirak's favorite Ivy League school is New Jersey's Princeton University, where there's one professor for every six students.

If your religion is a key factor, you might want to look at schools like the Baptist-based Baylor University in Texas.

"They've tried to make it the Protestant Notre Dame," Zmirak said.

For Catholics, there's New Jersey's Seton Hall.

"It has re-embraced its Catholic identity and improved its academics," Zmirak stated.

Then there's tuition-free College of the Ozarks in Missouri, which puts all its students to work for the college.

"Very good, solid, patriotic Christian school with excellent academics, and everybody goes there for free. But they work 40 hours a week. They emerge with a bachelor's degree and a very serious work ethic," Zmirak said.

The editor is also big on a small Virginia college that embraces Christianity and Western civilization.

"Patrick Henry College is an excellent place. Founded by and for home schoolers, but it's branched out a bit beyond that now," he said.

Schools like Regent University and Patrick Henry College delve deep into the traditions and teachings of Western civilization, which both Zmirak and Lindsay praise. 

They also worry about how few colleges embrace that philosophy.

"College should be where you get to study both the great thinkers on the left and the great thinkers on the right in order to produce critical thinkers of the students," Lindsay said. "Students don't get that any more. It undermines their ability to engage in complex reasoning."

What Businesses Want

No matter where you end up getting your education, Zmirak believes you should seek out those courses that give you a basic grounding in Western civilization.

He suggested classes in, "Ancient Greek and Roman literature, in ancient philosophy - Plato and Aristotle, in the Bible, in Christian thought and history before 1500, in the founding of the United States and its history before 1865, in modern political philosophy, and in 19th century intellectual history and in Shakespeare."

That should help make you what businesses want most: well-rounded, literate, deep-thinking workers.

"And those are the things that employers say are most missing, that they're really looking for: is students who can write a memo that's not illiterate, who can write a letter that's not embarrassing," Zmirak stated.

Still, maybe you don't even need that college degree.

"My own nephew became an electrician, did not go to college. He earns more money at age 25 than I earn now with a Ph.D," Zmirak said. 

Following such a path doesn't mean you can't still get a good education.

"Skip college. Read the Great Books on your own," Zmirak suggested. "Take some online courses."

But no matter where you go or don't go for your education, great learning is out there and doesn't have to put you in debt for decades.

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