Bad news keeps coming out of college campuses – from sexual assaults and deadly hazing rituals to random shootings and the stifling pressure on professors to issue trigger warnings to avoid traumatizing students with their syllabi.
Along with the astronomical costs of tuition at many schools, educators and prospective students are increasingly questioning the need for a traditional university experience. As a growing number of alternatives arise – including a variety of online-only options – is college becoming obsolete?
Not necessarily, or at least not yet – at least from an economic standpoint, according to a number of studies that show a strong link between college degrees and higher incomes.
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In a recent Pew Research Center survey of about 2,000 people, young adults with bachelor's degrees earned a median income of $45,500 in 2012. For people in the same age group (between 25 and 32) with two-year degrees or some college experience, median income dropped to $30,000. Those who maxed out at high-school graduation earned $28,000. Over the course of a lifetime, according to another study, people with degrees earn $1 million more than people who don't finish college.
College graduates in the Pew survey were also more likely to have full-time jobs. They were much less likely to be unemployed. And fewer were living in poverty. Other studies have linked college degrees with better health and longer lives. They are less likely to commit crimes, and more likely to get married and stay married.
"You're going to end up earning more over your lifetime if you attended college than if you only attended high school or part of college," said Fiona Hollands, a social scientist at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York. "From a social and economic perspective, you're better off going to college."
Embedded in the data, though, is evidence that college is not for everyone, said Alan Benson, a labor economist at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management in Minneapolis. Focusing on median income trends, for one thing, generally ignores the many people who fall below that line – and end up struggling, despite their degrees.
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For every tech billionaire who shrugged off college in favor of starting a successful company, he said, there are plenty of college graduates who can't pay off their debts.
"For the median person who goes to college, it is a good investment," Benson said. "But not everyone is going to be the median college graduate."
Assessing the value of a college education is particularly difficult because it's impossible to know what would have happened had people made different choices. If Bill Gates had chosen to finish Harvard before starting Microsoft, for example, he probably still would've done well. But what if more ordinary graduates who went on to be successful skipped college instead? And how would debt-smothered graduates fare if they'd chosen not to go to college at all? Nobody knows.
Even among college graduates, experiences and outcomes vary widely. Some evidence, for example, suggests that graduates from elite colleges earn the biggest salaries. But what students choose to study also affects their future salaries, often regardless of the institution. Engineering majors, for example, are likely to make more than students who get psychology degrees. (All of these trends are complicated by the fact that many graduates choose lower paying career tracks that deliver more life satisfaction.)
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"If you go to a four-year college and major in classics, you'll be earning a lot less than if you get a two-year associate's degree and become a medical technician," Benson said. "If your goal is to get a safe ticket to the middle class, I think it's misleading to think you will graduate and get there."
Given the many uncertainties – along with highly publicized stories of degree-free geniuses like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs – a growing pool of alternatives has emerged in recent years. The list includes the new for-profit Minerva Project, which offers online courses to a group of students who live together in a dormitory that moves to a new city every semester.
Other online options include nanodegrees that offer intense online learning experience focused on a particular skill; and virtual degrees that are backed by elite institutions, like Harvard and MIT.
As these programs grow, some experts urge caution. One lingering question is whether online degrees will offer the same social benefits of face-to-face interactions available on college campuses. The traditional system, proponents argue, is still more likely to mimic real-world workplaces, where employees need to work well in groups, meet deadlines, follow directions and stick with projects despite challenges. For now, Benson said, dropout rates from online programs remain high.
In order for online options to equal the college experience in value, Hollands added, they will need to prove their quality to employers. Traditional colleges are far from perfect, she said, and many could improve by focusing more on creativity, among other changes. But because the alternative programs are so new, nobody has studied the success rates of students who emerge from them - or compared outcomes with more traditional degrees. That makes it too soon to make a final call on how worthwhile they will end up being.
"Until employers are willing to accept alternative credentials or evidence of skills and knowledge, a college education is still the fastest ticket to a job," Hollands said. "I'm not going to tell my kids to skip college at this point."