Student debt is out of control. College tuition has sky-rocketed. Admissions rates have plummeted. Colleges are preying on vulnerable students, especially Black women. Merit has died as colleges become test-optional. The rich are buying all the spots. The college process is completely broken. 

Reading headlines about higher education today, I’m struck by how much gloom and doom is portrayed. It’s almost as if the goal is to convince the public that going to college isn’t worth it.

The argument against college continues with stories pointing out that Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out. We hear about Peter Thiel offering $100,000 to “to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom,” and politicians tout the success of welders making $150,000 a year. 

Despite the problems with admissions and pricing, a college education offers a substantial value.

The problem is that these headlines and the accompanying narrative never tell the full story and disproportionately push Black families into less valuable choices. Neither hyper-successful dropouts nor six-figure craftsmen are the norm. And despite the problems with admissions and pricing, a college education offers a substantial value. 

And listen, if wealthy, connected families are willing to lie, cheat, and bribe to get their children into college, as we saw in the recent Operation Varsity Blues scandal, there is clearly an advantage to be gained. 

College Degrees Increase the Odds of Economic Prosperity

There is no question that college tuition is much higher than it was 20 years ago and that student loan debt is a problem, however, most of that debt is for graduate degrees or from for-profit colleges. The average debt for students earning a bachelor’s degree in 2017 was $27,400, which was less than the average debt taken for a new car that year. Admissions rates have decreased at some colleges, but almost 80% of ranked colleges admit more than half of their applicants. While test-optional admissions has made some feel less comfortable about their likelihood of being admitted, it has opened doors for many students who otherwise wouldn’t apply, especially underrepresented students.

The hyperbolic stories of debt and exclusion that attract attention make the consideration of investing in a college education much more difficult and strip nuance from a complex conversion. 

While going to college isn’t the only pathway to economic success, it does increase the odds. As much as we wish it would, attending college doesn’t overcome America’s racial problems. On average, Black Americans take out $7,400 more in student loans and earn less in the workplace, but degree holders, again on average, earn more than non-degree holders across all demographics. Holding a college degree opens doors to opportunity and reduces unemployment, but it doesn’t solve for racial disparities in this country. 

The real question isn’t whether going to college at all is of value; the data are clear — it is. 

Or better yet, getting a college degree at an affordable price is worth it. Paying a lot of money and acquiring a lot of debt for a degree that doesn’t open doors isn’t worth it. 

What Students Should Really Look For in a College

The real challenge I’ve seen among students and families is filtering the noise and finding a collegiate experience that offers the greatest educational, financial, and social value. 

Assessing the future value of one college versus another isn’t easy, especially when most public discussion centers on a few highly rejective colleges using flawed rankings and reputation to assign labels (best, elite, top) rather than define value. 

Getting a college degree at an affordable price is worth it. Paying a lot of money and acquiring a lot of debt for a degree that doesn’t open doors isn’t worth it.

The labels are particularly troublesome for Black and Latinx families. Most measures of college value use simple data points like graduation rates, and ding HBCUs and HSIs for lower graduation rates. But measuring these institutions in the same ways that schools like Princeton are judged ignores their specialized mission, societal impact, narrower populations, and factors outside of their control. 

Perhaps the metric we should look for most in a college is how much growth the college fosters. Will it foster educational growth? Will it open doors to career opportunities that otherwise would not be available? Will it expose students socially to experiences that are positive and uplifting? Will the college do all these things at a cost that is manageable?

What Students Can Use to Find the Right College

While no tool currently exists that can tell you the value of one university versus another for your situation, there are many more tools available in 2022 than there were 10 or 20 years ago: 

Making the best choice for a college requires defining what your values are, what your finances are, and then finding one of the more than 2,000 colleges in the country that will best meet your educational needs, personal values, and financial limitations. Of course, like dating or going to an unfamiliar restaurant, there’s no real way to guarantee that the experience will live up to expectations but you do what you can to make sure the risk is worth the reward.

Akil Bello is an educator, entrepreneur, and advocate who has worked in admissions testing and educational access for almost three decades. A nationally recognized authority on educational access and standardized testing, Akil was a founding partner and CEO of Bell Curves, a test preparation company that helps schools and non-profit organizations develop affordable solutions for underserved students. Currently, Akil serves as Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest, where he works to build resources and tools to ensure that large-scale assessment tests are used responsibly and transparently to benefit students. Akil attended an HBCU and ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree from a university in Brooklyn.