College tuition has become astronomically expensive these days, at least as compared to what I had to pay in the 1950s. The meaning of the numbers on the dollar bills has changed, because of the inflation intentionally generated by the US Treasury, and because of that bias the hours of work it takes to earn enough to go to college is a better measure of relative cost. In 1955 I was earning $0.75 per hour plus all my food costs by working as a hasher at a sorority. My rent was $17 per month, which means (17/0.75 = 22.6) I was working 22.6 hours per month to pay for both my room and board. Since I worked and ate everyday that comes out to about an hour per day that I worked and had a little cash left over. My tuition was free, and the only fixed expense was my student body fee, which was $5 a year. I owned a car and gas cost $0.32 per gallon, so I could buy about two gallons of gas for an hour’s work. That was about how much gas I used per week to drive around town. I never worried about money.
Now a minimum wage job with food, like my hasher job, pays $10 per hour, at best, but a shared apartment is going to be $500 so there is 500/10 = 50 hours work per month for room and board. That’s about twice the hours of work just to eat and sleep. The real problem comes when paying tuition. I paid 0 but a private college is going to be about $25,000 and a four-year public school about $5,000. At ten dollars per hour wage that equals 500 hours work in expenditure of time above room and board to go to a state college. At ten dollars per hour that would be 12.5 weeks of work just to pay tuition at a state college. That would be equal to a full time summer job to pay tuition, but not cover room and board. To earn enough for an ivy league school would be ($25,000/10 = 2,500 hours) or 62.5 weeks of work per year of school, with no other expenses, to pay tuition, and sorry but no eating or sleeping. That is, it’s almost impossible; thus it would be necessary to get a loan and a scholarship, if that were possible, and leave college with a huge debt. The situation is near impossible for an average student heading off to college. Furthermore, if a young person is working that many hours they won’t have enough energy left over to study the many hours it takes to get a scholarship or even acceptance to a top school.
Why is there such a difference between 1953 and 2013? One reason is because so few people were going to college back then, which meant a higher percentage of people were working and paying taxes and the tax burden per taxpayer to support students was much less. With a much higher percentage of people going to college and a lower percentage of people working and paying taxes, those who do pay taxes would be forced to pay more. What has been done is to shift the expense of going to school onto the student and his willingness to go into deep debt. Unfortunately he has no experience of the future, no one has, and very little experience of the past, only old people have that, and old people are no longer willing to pick up the expense of the young people’s education.
There is the proven fact that those with more years of college education make more money, but at present that includes all those people who have reached the peak of their professional lives. They were earning their experience and status when there were far fewer college graduates to compete with, and so the data for past performance is greatly skewed in favor of those with degrees. There is a small but fixed percentage of people who are ever going to be heads of corporations. A kid entering college now will be facing a job market when he graduates where nearly everyone has a degree, so fifty years in the future there will be an abundance of people with higher degrees who will never have gotten a job equaling the ones they were preparing for when at college. The future for college graduates is much more challenging and less remunerative than it has been. Going to a major institution like Harvard will still pay off in every way possible, but going to a local school that isn’t in the top tier may not pay off very well and a local junior college degree will mean little, other than you have endurance and loyalty.
A few years after graduation the personal employment record will be more important than a degree for holding a well-paying job.