Is College Still Worth it? - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

Is College Still Worth it?

college textbooksStudents have long been told that going to college is a great financial investment, paying for itself many times over throughout a graduate’s career. But in recent years, as tuitions have skyrocketed and as employment prospects for graduates have become less certain, many now debate the value of college.

In the December issue of College Composition and Communication, Chase Bollig examines the recent writing on this issue, searching for more effective ways to recognize the value of a college education.

Bollig begins by admitting the upward mobility argument is flawed:

According to “commonsense” advocates of higher education, college is an economically transformative event because the experience produces skills, knowledge, and personal networks that grant college graduates jobs valued at one million dollars more in lifetime earnings. However, other commentators challenge claims about “the big payoff” by pointing to stagnating middle incomes, higher debt burdens, and the difficulty of measuring the income gap between college graduates and nongraduates. Moreover, as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has reported, “high student-debt burdens limit borrowers’ ability to take on new financial obligations,” including traditional middle-class rites of passage such as homeownership.

Many scholars reject the notion that college gives students skills that make them more valuable employees, noting that most employers give new hires the training required to do their job well. College graduates do tend to earn more money than others, but the reason may have less to do with the marketable skills developed in college than with the success of the college admissions process in identifying the most talented and promising individuals. This notion can be supported by the fact that Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and other highly successful business leaders were admitted to top colleges but didn’t bother to graduate.

Indeed, as Bollig points out, the burden of student debt can actually limit graduates’ career opportunities. Students with high debt, in order to make their payments, must choose jobs that pay well (even when a lower-paying job might be more fulfilling or more beneficial to society) and in those jobs, they are less free to risk challenging their employers over unfair working conditions.

To recognize the value of college, and for composition professors to encourage both students and society generally to recognize that value, Bollig suggests we stop focusing solely on economic benefits to the individual and instead consider all the possible benefits to a citizen-worker.

Developing curricula oriented toward the citizen-worker allows compositionists to engage directly with the economic anxieties motivating the “worth it” debate without reproducing literacy myths that equate college attendance with economic advancement. Stemming from a notion of civitas that engages with our relations as workers, this tactic speaks to the potential for political solidarity among the precariat, a class of individuals characterized by chronic unemployment, underemployment, and limited control over the conditions of their “flexible” labor. In this way, rather than seeing postgraduation unemployment as an individual problem—as a condition reflecting a choice of major, academic performance, or institutional pedigree—our treatment of higher education becomes an engagement with both the potential privileges of a degree and its limits.

In addition to speaking to underlying economic anxieties, a citizen-worker orientation toward composition demands of us that we continually ask how our pedagogies prepare students for not only academic writing but also for the realities of the workforce, including how to resist and thrive. Rather than distancing the value of our work from the market logics that produce job-hungry “higher ed consumers,” composition should seek to influence the expression of these market logics. Such a citizen-worker perspective might be understood as a mode of inquiry for ourselves and our students, integrated into first-year composition or used to frame other modes of cultural inquiry, for example, by analyzing power relations embedded in the workplace in light of feminist or critical race theories. This perspective might include proposing to students that cultural analysis may inform how they situate themselves and their coworkers in moments of conflict or in advocating for their rights as workers.


Read Chase Bollig’s entire article “’Is College Worth It?’ Arguing for Composition’s Value with the Citizen-Worker.”