College Gets More Thumbs Down
It skipped my attention for a while, but I recently became aware of a Gallup survey published last July
that showed only a little more than a third of Americans expressed confidence in the value of a
college education. As recently as 2015, 57% of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “quite a lot”
of confidence in higher education. Earlier this year when the latest survey was taken only 36% said so.
That’s quite a drop in a relatively short period of time.
A major factor in this loss of faith is of course the rising cost of attending college. According to a study
by Georgetown University, the cost of attending a college rose by an average of 169% between 1980
and 2020. When I was a youngster – admittedly a long time ago – it wasn’t unusual for people to, as
the saying went, “work their way through college.” That meant supporting oneself while obtaining a
I was one of them. I am the first person in my working-class family to go to college. My folks could
never afford to pay my way full or in part. However, as a veteran, I received free tuition at a state
university (subsidized by my home state of Illinois), and from the G.I. Bill received a monthly stipend
of $140 while enrolled as a full-time student (later raised to $210 a month when I got married in my
sophomore year). Everything was a lot cheaper back then, but even so it was not enough for a self-
supporting student like me to pay for rent, books, fees, groceries, etc. I supplemented my income by
driving a taxi part-time throughout my college years. Yes, I worked my way through college.
It’s virtually impossible for a student to do so today, even with a tuition subsidy like I enjoyed. Unless
you are a star athlete or other full scholarship recipient, the expense is simply too great at almost any
four-year university. Many students cope by taking out student loans, which burden them for a long
time and sometimes throughout their working career.
Paying back those loans is not easy when the value of a college degree has been downgraded like it
has today, as evidenced by the fact that more than a third of our workforce can produce one. Yet,
around 40% of them are working in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
At the same time, it’s become harder and harder for Americans to find competent plumbers, electricians
and HVAC technicians, whose pay scales are on the rise even as college graduates struggle to find jobs
that enable them to move out of their parents’ home and still pay off their student loans. Many more
people are starting to realize that skilled trades offer more dollar-for-dollar value than a college degree.