Back in the early 1970′s, I had worked on this very same issue: Is a college education worth getting? I was a programmer working with an econometrician trying to decide this.
In fact, Milton Friedman reported (incorrectly) that a college education was NOT worth the investment in forgone income plus the huge additional cost. The reason he had reported it incorrectly was that one of his programmers had messed up the programming of his model. Friedman did make an apology to the economics community about the error. (It wasn’t my error. I was working for someone else.)
I have not paid any attention to the issue in at least 30 years but …
It surely seems that young people are acting rationally. The cost of the education has gone up and the value has gone down.
With the dumbing down of America (and it is not only happening here, but, anecdotally it seems worse here), the universities have to take in ill-prepared students and do remedial math, etc. This raises the cost to everyone. It’s cost-shifting from high school to colleges.
Then, of course, there is the issue of grade inflation across the entire spectrum of our educational system. For some fascinating reading on (gasp!) actual data: www.gradeinflation.com/
The quality of college educations seems (again, anecdotally) to have gone down, too. Which means that the value of that piece of paper has gone down because it no longer guarantees much of anything.
Why incur huge debt when, after you get out, you have a good chance of earning a whopping $15/hour on which you will be paying fairly heavy taxes and a huge debt, too.
So, what’s at least a partial answer? Perhaps schools should return to ranking. “This student ranked 97th out of 200 graduates” so that employers have some sense of the quality of the person they are buying.
And with marginal tax rates on higher income (“I’ll only tax those making more that $250K/year”) the value of an education goes down even farther.
I wonder if Milton Friedman’s econometric model were rerun today if the answer would be different. I suspect it would be.
The market has spoken: At an individual level and a societal level, as currently structured, a college education and beyond probably just ain’t worth it.