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Where Is the Value in a Four-Year Education?

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I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Value.

Okay, that wasn't exactly how it went. But just as our view of plastics has changed significantly since the era of The Graduate, the American dream of the 1960s -- marriage, a family, a house in the suburbs and hopefully a decent college education for your children -- has changed a lot, too.

We've talked ad infinitum about marriage becoming obsolete, how the very notion of family has been rocked on its mom-and-dad-plus-two derrière and how suburbanites are returning to cities in droves as they bid the white picket fence adieu. So what of the college ideal? (All easy for me to type, as someone who never married and is living with my partner -- and his four children -- in the suburbs and it's the week before my 30th reunion from my Ivy League alma mater, my first in 25 years because I love nostalgia almost as much as traditional roles and lifestyles. But I digress.)

Well, two surveys released by the Pew Research Center in one report on May 15 assessed the value of higher education.

The results of one, of 2,142 adults ages 18 and older, show that a majority of Americans (75 percent) believe higher education is unaffordable for most people and that 57 percent believe it fails to give students a good value. Among those who are part of the record number of students leaving college with substantial debt, one fourth say the debt has made it harder to buy a home and another fourth say it has affected their career choices.

As alarming as all this might be, 94 percent of survey respondents with at least one child under age 18 say they expect their children to attend college, and more than half say they are saving for it, despite whether they find it a good value or whether Junior's education will send the family into the poorhouse. Among adults aged 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor's degree, two-thirds say a major reason is the need to support a family; 57 percent say they would prefer to work and make money, and 48 percent say they can't afford to attend college. Slowly but surely, the middle class is becoming a casualty when it comes to a university education.

But do you really need a degree to be successful today? Look no further than Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as proof that you might not; both are college dropouts with almost unimaginable success, making many of us wish we had spent less time in English Lit. and more time masterminding the possibilities of a connected and tech-enabled world.

In this era of "experts" younger than certain dresses of mine (and definitely certain jeans; the question is, will I or won't I wear ancient Levi's to the aforementioned reunion, to attempt to redefine what's 50? Again I digress... ) in areas such as social media, is a higher degree really necessary? Or do you maybe need only an uncanny ability to have a savant-like grasp on a skyrocketing tech economy to ensure a prosperous life?

This year's graduating class is unique in its digital savvy. But the graduates are also blessed with the distinction of being the most indebted class of all time, according to The Wall Street Journal, at about $18K this year, which seems low to me, based on the kids I know, who have borrowed at least that much for each year in a private or out-of-state situation. I feel myself gasping for air on their behalf -- anxiety over not just year one of repayment but also the full loan term, which just won't go away. It's as final now as death and taxes, it seems.

Is it surprising, then, that the more cost-effective arena of online education is enjoying megagrowth? According to University Facts, each year 30 percent more students enroll in an online university. University of Phoenix alone boasts an enrollment of more than 250,000. With growing adaption of all things digital, these numbers should continue to grow, and quickly. And if our young, college-aged adults are spending the majority of their time online or "in the cloud," it makes abundant sense to educate them there, too, and for less cost. Look for "open textbooks" (i.e., digital versions of those expensive -- and heavy -- academic tomes) to reduce students' book budgets, which, according to The Atlantic, is about $900 a year on average, and reduce trips to the chiropractor or masseuse, to boot.

American schools aren't the only ones in trouble. Our friends in the UK are having an epic crisis of their own. Now they're looking for other nations to help preserve their higher ed reputation as they struggle with rising costs and slashed budgets. Some universities are hoping to bank on their solid reputation and good name. Take the University of Warwick, which is part of a bid for a new research campus sought by New York City. With a specialty in applied sciences and engineering, the university has a good shot at extending, and altogether exporting, its brand stateside.

And Holland (my second homeland) always progressive and a forerunner in affordable education (thus the desire for many young Dutch to stay in school as long as possible) is marketing its offerings to the United Kingdom. Maastricht University, a premier Dutch institution, is offering degrees in English across eight subject areas, with tuition about half that charged by UK universities.

If a diploma is merely a certificate and not an acknowledgment of grades or ranking, where is the "value" in a four-year education? With all this entrepreneurialism rising, what place will college take in young lives when you can start a business without a degree but with loads of passion?

Maybe offering practical classes on entrepreneurship, networking or opening a vintage boutique would increase a college's value perception -- because higher education also about meeting like-minded students and expanding horizons outside that robotics class. (Though, as President Obama has reminded us, it's essential to train our young people to appreciate and pursue science and technology.)

The university system isn't going anywhere. It simply has to change and adapt like the rest of industry to have some notion of value. Which brings me to one of the more fascinating lines from the Pew Study: that "while Americans value college, they value character even more."

Asked what it takes for a young person to succeed in the world, the report says 61 percent cite a good work ethic as extremely important, and 57 percent say the same about knowing how to get along with people. It adds: "Only 42 percent say the same about a college education."

As we continue to focus on how we can make our young people the best they can be and as we dismantle the traditional notion of the American dream, look for universities to rethink their value. So it's fair to ask me: "If you got that fat Brown acceptance today, would you still accept the challenge?" I just don't know -- and that's from someone who has enjoyed the spoils of the network, its generosity and its support from the day I walked onto campus, a suburban nitwit thrust into the land of superachievers. Could I have become me at the school of hard knocks, or would the cost and the indebtedness in today's terms have been worth it?