A recent New York Times illustration read, "COLLEGE IS FOR SUCKERS."
The words were emblazoned across the sweatshirts of four students, and the accompanying article made essentially that point. It echoed an increasingly common refrain that college is expensive, that students are taking on unmanageable debt and that they too often graduate unprepared for the world of work.
In contrast, many economists and educators point to data showing that the fastest growing job categories require at least a college degree. College graduates are much more likely to be employed than those with only a high school diploma and earn substantially higher salaries. According to this viewpoint, college graduates aren't suckers; they're the winners in a globally competitive economy.
Both sides have points. However, the first argument treats colleges as monolithic, and the second turns individual students into averages. The reality is far more nuanced. Too often, our current system fails to help students identify the institutions best suited to them — based on their academic preparation, aspirations and resources. When we focus so heavily on monetary inputs and outputs, we ignore the question of what it truly means to be educated, such as contributing to the public good.
Yes, colleges prepare people for jobs, but more critically, they prepare people for life. A job may be the starting point for the good life, but it shouldn't be the end point.
One strength of American higher education is the diversity of missions among our 4,700 colleges and universities. Students can find institutions — public and private, two-year and four-year — for just about any educational niche and budget. Students and families should learn as much as possible about each institution they are considering. They should also estimate the net costs, looking carefully at expenses and anticipated grants and loans.
Colleges and universities must also be more transparent. President Barack Obama has called on higher education to standardize the information given to students and families about costs, financial aid packages, students' debt at graduation and graduation rates. The University System of Maryland was one of the first systems to sign on to that initiative, and campuses now provide new details in a revised financial aid award letter sent to families.
Maryland families are fortunate. Thanks to the support of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the Maryland General Assembly, tuition at our public colleges and universities has increased only 3 percent each year for the past three years, following four years of tuition freezes. In addition, our public and private institutions have an impressive record of admitting and educating a broad range of students who have become leaders in Maryland and beyond. Enrollments at our institutions are healthy because families have seen that our graduates succeed.
Even so, students need strong counseling to identify the best possible options. Lack of counseling is one reason that fewer than 10 percent of Americans from the lowest income quartile have earned a college degree by age 24, compared to 80 percent of those in the top quartile.
My colleagues spend countless hours advising prospective students, some of whom ultimately choose UMBC, while others decide we're not the best fit. That type of counseling is critical, but it is time consuming and expensive for both colleges and high schools.
College preparatory initiatives such as Way2go Maryland, led by the University System of Maryland, have proven promising. So, too, have programs run by such private organizations as the CollegeBound Foundation in Baltimore and CollegeTracks in Montgomery County. However, adequate funding continues to be a challenge, and much work remains in educating students about their options. Higher education must continue to partner with school systems to prepare more students for college. At stake isn't just a clearer path to financial stability, but the path to limitless possibilities.
I'm reminded of that each day when I walk past a statue of the late Walter Sondheim that stands in the heart of our campus and reminds us of the power of education each day. When Sondheim graduated from college, he took a job at Hochschild, Kohn & Company in Baltimore and had no idea what else he wanted to do with his life. Fortunately, college had given him a strong grounding in the liberal arts and the ability to think broadly. That uncertain young man became the most admired civic leader in Maryland. He advised mayors and governors, led desegregation of the city schools, and was an active leader for decades.
Sondheim's education helped him get a job. More important, it helped him change Maryland — and we all are the beneficiaries.
Freeman Hrabowski is president of UMBC. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.