Marty Nemko, an education consultant and career counselor, said he believes the bachelor's degree is America's most overrated product. Nemko is one of many who says there are some ugly statistics the education establishment doesn't like to talk about.
"The sticker price of colleges has gone up well over the rate of inflation, for decades," he said.
Indeed, if the price of gas had grown as much as the cost of a bachelor's degree since 1980, drivers would be filling up today for about $7.50 per gallon.
Nemko said tuition money gets funneled into fancy facilities to lure students who don't question the long-term value of what they're paying for, things like rock-climbing walls, golf courses and maid services in dorms.
"Stop with these enormous country club college campuses," he said. "They are robbing people who can't afford it."
But what about that $1 million bonus for getting a bachelor's degree?
"There could be no more misleading statistic that I could possibly tell you about," he said.
Misleading, Nemko said, because it includes superearners, billionaire college grads who skew the average. Additionally, he said, the students who attend college are already more likely to be successful than those who don't.
Economics professor Sandy Baum, author of "Education Pays," a College Board study promoting the advantages of higher education, said it is the education that makes the difference.
"On average, people benefit much more from going to college," Baum said, agreeing that the $1 million figure is inaccurate. Her study estimated that graduates gain half that.
Yet universities still throw around that $1 million estimate. Arizona State University recently used it to justify a tuition hike.
Rowland, Alfred and Percell are skeptical about the so-called college premium. But at least they graduated. Others are not so fortunate.
"If you're in the bottom 40 percent of your high school class -- and today, colleges are recruiting lots of those kids -- you have a very small chance of graduating, even if you are given 8½ years," career expert Nemko said.
"And the immoral thing about it is that the colleges do not disclose that."
Economist Baum said, "We should make that information more available. But the reality is that even if you have some college and you don't graduate, it still pays off in the labor market."
For some kids, that is a gamble they'd rather not take. Carl Wunche High School outside Houston lets kids choose among dozens of technical education programs, from emergency medical technician training to training in crime scene investigation. This training qualifies them for real-world jobs, without the time and money required for a four-year degree.
It's worth a thought. Electricians, on average, make about $48,000 a year; plumbers, about $47,000 and paralegals, about $47,000. All these jobs pay above the national average and none require a bachelor's degree.
Steven Eilers went through the automotive program and then worked as an apprentice in a car repair center. He is already earning more than the average American, and he doesn't have any student loan debt.
"More people need to realize that you don't have to get a four-year degree to be successful," he said
At a time when white-collar jobs are vanishing every month, the automotive repair industry actually added jobs last year. Alfred, the theater graduate, said he wasn't surprised.