Some Debt-Laden Graduates Wonder Why They Bothered With College

Some experts say students might be better off getting a job after high school.

January 15, 2009, 11:18 AM

Jan. 16, 2009— -- It's the American way to try to make as much money as possible. And it's said that the way to earn more is to get the best education you can afford.

But in today's economy, where so many overqualified people are competing for fewer jobs, the promise of a big payoff from a college diploma can be misleading.

For some students such as Rachele Percell, it has turned out to be a total disappointment. She's the first one in her family to go to college and said she'll probably be the last. Earlier this month, struggling to make ends meet, Percell moved out of her New Hampshire apartment and is upset about taking a step back.

"I didn't plan to go move back in with my mother," she said. "I feel like I have to sponge off my family now."

Percell never dreamed that this is what would happen after she graduated from college. She grew up hearing that education pays. A government study once claimed that a bachelor's degree was worth $1 million over a lifetime. Even political figures like Hillary Clinton were touting the benefits of a college degree.

So Percell borrowed enough money to pay about $24,000 a year to attend Rivier College in Nashua, N.H. She's about $85,000 in debt.

"I was told just to take out the loans and get the degree," she said, "because when you graduate, you're going to be able to get that good job and pay them off, no problem."

But for three years, Percell has struggled to find a job with her degree in human development. And the recession has made her search even tougher. To pay the bills, she took a low-level desk job with an insurance company, doing work she says she could have done straight out of high school.

When asked if going to college was worth it, she replied with an emphatic "No."

"Because now I have this huge amount of debt, and there's no way I'll be able to pay it off," she said.

Rivier College said via e-mail that Percell's situation is" unfortunate" and that many of its graduates have launched successful careers. But many students now say the business about college earning you $1 million more is an empty promise.

'I Feel Like a Loser'

Like most students, Kris Alfred was repeatedly told in high school that everyone goes to college.

Alfred said he owes more than $125,000 for his degrees in theater when he's not even working in that field.

"I work at a call center, and I make $10 an hour," he said. "It's surreal. I feel like a loser."

Walter Rowland got a degree in meteorology and now owes $77,000 in student loans.

"College was a rip-off and nothing against, you know, my college or my professors, but I was misinformed," he said.

"You're led down this path of needing to go to college," he continued. "The college diploma is the new high school diploma."

Personal finance guru Suze Orman says college is a no-brainer for kids who can be lawyers and doctors. But she says that in this economy, many others should reassess the value of a generic bachelor's degree. She believes it ultimately might not be worth it.

Orman said it's often smarter to acquire specific marketable skills at a community college, a technical school or by working as an apprentice for a business, making yourself more employable without piling up a mountain of debt.

"I would rather see a child go to a community college, knowing that they can go out there, get a job and not be crushed under the burden of a prestigious degree," she said.

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.

Above Average Pay Without a Degree

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.

"The friends I know that have jobs, secure jobs, they never went to college," he said.

Rivier College recommended that Percell contact its career development office. But what if she could do it all over again?

"I probably would have gone to a trade school for hairdressing," she said. "It's about $11,000 and I'd probably be making better money."

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