Is a college degree still worth it?

Recently, some have argued that it makes more financial sense to go directly into the workforce after high school, or to invest in a two-year technical education instead of a four-year degree.

You may have heard the same kind of anecdotal examples I have: A student goes into double-digit debt to earn his or her degree, and then graduates and can't find a job good enough to pay that debt down.

As a parent of a prospective college student, that's admittedly a scary thought. But here in Wisconsin, it is still possible to obtain a four-year degree from a public university for a very reasonable price.

The University of Wisconsin System has structured its tuition at various price points. The UW Colleges, like UW-Baraboo/Sauk County, offer the greatest value in terms of pursuing a four-year degree.

UW-BSC offers UW courses for about $200 per credit, or $2,450 per semester. This means the first two years of a four-year UW education ring in at around $10,000, not including books and any room and board.

Compare this to our most expensive private universities, which can run many times as much for a similar experience of small classes with outstanding credentialed professors, and you can see the immediate savings of starting at UW-BSC.

But the real value comes in the long run. On average, a four-year college graduate will out-earn a high school graduate by a significant amount, United States Census data shows.

Finding a career is important and students should ask questions about majors and job placement after graduation. However, those who argue that the main reason to attend college is to make money are missing a big part of the equation. A four-year college education is about learning analytical skills, communication skills, developing an ability to appreciate the human condition and the arts, understanding how to work with and interact with different people, and to see and identify connections and relationships. These skills can be applied to virtually any career and any major.

When you earn a four-year UW degree, more than half of your credits likely will be in the liberal arts, and only about a quarter will be in your specific major. Why is that? Because earning a college degree is about becoming educated in all of the areas listed above, not just trained in one discipline.

I estimate that my three UW degrees - a bachelor's, master's and doctorate - together cost about $35,000, including a semester overseas. I was fortunate that my parents helped me as an undergraduate student and my spouse and I worked while in graduate school.

Although my earning power early in my career was behind many of my friends who did not go to college, it paid off in the end.

It paid off financially, but much more importantly, it paid off in terms of opportunity. My education allowed me to pursue interests and positions that never would have been possible without the investment.

Along the way, I have been fortunate to meet many interesting colleagues, teach students, conduct field research, travel and see the world very differently. I also met my spouse, developed lifelong friendships and interacted with people and ideas that I never would have imagined coming from a small town in northeast Wisconsin.

I would not trade a bit of that experience for more money.

So yes, I believe a four-year college education is definitely worth it. Sure, it is a big investment in time, money and energy, and many people are successful without it. But in the end it is a transformational experience, and you can't put a price tag on that.

Tom Pleger has served as Campus Executive Officer and Dean at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County since 2006. He will discuss the value of a college degree as a guest on the Larry Meiller Show of the Ideas Network On Wisconsin Public Radio at 11 a.m. Aug. 4.

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