Returning the Joy to College

Mounting student debt and elusive job prospects have made some young adults wonder if college is worth the price and effort, even when they know it is.

Mounting student debt and elusive job prospects have made some young adults wonder if college is worth the price and effort, even when they know it is.

The joy of college has turned distinctly dour these days as the high price of tuition and the elusiveness of post-graduation jobs are plunging some students into depression. The problem is especially severe for graduate students with sky-high debt and limited prospects.

Getting into college may be a gigantic headache for the more than half of high school graduates that the College Board says are unprepared for the academic rigors to earn an undergraduate degree. In some states, such as Delaware, only a quarter of students who took the SAT scored high enough to be considered college-ready. Oregon beat the national average, but still hovers below the 50 percent readiness mark.

In San Francisco, city officials are managing a campaign to give kindergarteners a starter donation for a college savings account. Each child gets an initial $50 deposit. Children enrolled in the National School Lunch Program receive $100.

The early-start on a college savings account rests with a study that shows even small amounts set aside for college create expectations the student will attend college. For students from low-income families, even small amounts of savings prove a strong motivation, as they are three times more likely to attend college and four times more likely to graduate.

Postsecondary education in America has played a critical role in the nation's development and remains the gold standard for much of the world. However, U.S. universities and colleges are showing stress fractures as federal and corporate basic research funding has shrunk, state tuition support has declined and student service demands have increased. The result is higher costs and more student and parental debt, which transfers a lot of the stress onto individuals and families.

States such as Oregon are pressing to have more students graduate from high school and take at least two years of postsecondary training to earn a degree or professional or technical certification. State officials on the vanguard of recruiting businesses hear repeatedly the importance of a skilled, motivated and educated workforce. Existing businesses routinely complain about their inability to find certain kinds of skilled workers ranging from computer engineers to welders.

This quagmire of issues has left many students wondering whether college makes sense, even though study after study demonstrates the lifetime earning potential for college graduates is exponentially higher than for those with just a high school diploma. But lifetime earnings is a hard concept to ponder when students have a hard time landing their first job related to their field of study, making it difficult to pay off their student loans, buy a car or live on their own.

There are a lot of public and private efforts to address the strains on going to college. Many states provide tax incentives for college savings accounts. There is federal legislation to sweeten college savings account incentives, as well as to curb the interest rates on student loans. Starbucks has offered to foot the bill for two years worth of college for its employees. Some colleges have explored alternate ways to take classes and earn a degree.

None of these ideas rises to the level of a master stroke or a galvanizing plan to reinvigorate U.S. postsecondary education. Top students with strong career motivations will always do well, but it is the student who is less sure about his or her future that may fall by the wayside. And people just scraping by in high school, with low self-expectations and few financial resources, may simply look past college, at least until later when they realize they are trapped in a no-win situation.

The stakes are too large to ignore. America's colleges have been credited with powering the U.S. economy, winning a world war and spurring waves of innovation. Anything that important deserves more attention than it is getting.