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YAB Members Report: Is College Still Worth It?

As debt runs deep in students’ pockets, the decision to continue education past high school is no longer a given. In 2012, undergraduate and graduate enrollment decreased for the first time in six years, dropping by half a million. The value that Millennials gain from a college degree is being questioned, and when weighed against impending student loans and a shaky job market, the odds don’t seem to be in their favor. How prepared do Millennials feel to tackle life out of high school and college? What is it like to be in college knowing that the degree you are earning might not be worth what you need it to be when you graduate? We spoke to Millennials from our Youth Advisory Board to hear what they had to say about their high school and college careers, and what the landscape of education looks like for them.
The Recession Put Education Into Perspective.
Millennials were no doubt hit hard by the recession, and for many students, it dictated their path going forward. YAB member Maddie, 19, has always kept college in her trajectory, but feels that it became even more important during this time, causing her to “begin to consider graduate school so I can be even more specialized and unique to future employers.” Camilla, 23, took that path as well, “taking the time for grad school, and making sure I had full funding (i.e. a salary and research funds) for my PhD.” Both rely on external funding through scholarships and grants, and help from parents in order to get by. But for some, parental support is not an option. For YAB member Skyanne, 18, “the recession made it clear that regardless of what society says, sometimes college just isn’t an option.” Boxed out of financial aid and without a co-signer for loans, paying out of pocket is the final option and is near impossible for a high school graduate without an income who is up against a price tag of $30,000 a year, often more.
High School Isn’t Life Prep.
Not one of the YAB members we spoke to felt that high school adequately prepared them for much of anything, and as Maddie put bluntly, a high school education “is not enough to be a knowledgeable and informed citizen.” Skyanne notes that, “schools teach for standardized testing and not much else these days” and that in high school, she “never learned about how to create a CV or resume, where to find a job, how to balance a checkbook or create a budget and we certainly never touched upon building credit, loans, rent (or finding a place to live in general), taxes, or anything that I am now faced with.” Maddie feels the same about college, saying she does not feel prepared for “many basic things such as paying bills, doing taxes, and managing money.”
A 4-Year Degree Is Still the Standard.
Even though they are aware that college will likely burden them with loans and won’t guarantee them a job, it is still considered a life requirement. As Maddie laments, “I can’t imagine trying to enter the workforce without at least a bachelor’s degree. Many employers won’t even look at a resume if it doesn’t include a college degree.” While high school graduates are hard-pressed to find gainful employment these days with just a diploma, we see a new catch-22 emerging: As the number of people attending college increases, the value of a college education decreases. Both Rachel, 20, and Jaclyn, 20, feel stuck in this dilemma, telling us “a 4-year college degree isn’t as valuable as it used to be,” but continue with their higher education anyway in order to have any kind of a chance in the job market. But while a 4-year degree has become the standard for employers, Skyanne argues that nothing is a given anymore, as “going to college no longer guarantees you a grand future, just as not going to college doesn’t make you a failure.” But recognizing the expectation that Millennial employees will have a college education, she feels the need to “continue education through Coursera, MIT’s free online classes.” With the ubiquity of college educations and the prevalence of online courses and alternative schooling, the value of a college degree becomes increasingly more subjective.
But Real World Experience is the Real Value.
At the same time, it is often not enough to simply attend college these days. Recruiters make it clear that it’s vital for students to gain real world working experience, whether through part-time jobs or internships, in order to continue competing for a place in the job market post-graduation. While college may be the standard, the Millennials we spoke to agreed that real world experience is unmatched. Rachel, who has become disenchanted with the value of a 4-year degree, thinks that “getting work experience and practice in your field (through internships) is what is the most valuable in today’s society.” The internship that she had in NYC gave her a better sense of the working world and she “felt more like an adult during that time.” Maddie pointed out that “internships and joining clubs/organizations on campus” are providing her with those necessary hands-on learning experiences and Jaclyn agrees that through her internships she sees “the ways my college is actually preparing me for what life and work beyond college is really like.” But nowhere did they mention their experiences in the classroom, perhaps indicating that the real value of college lies in its ability to connect students to immersions in the real world.