10/10/2012 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

Is College Worth It?

I will never forget painting the boiler in a school basement, nor ripping copy from the teletype machines at 5 a.m., or any other job which helped pay my way through college 40 years ago. Thanks to hard work, and generous scholarships which the State of Michigan provided to students at private colleges at the time, I was able to graduate from college with little debt. For me, and millions more of my generation, there was never any doubt that college was worth it. My father never finished college. Although he was not in a position to help financially very much, his encouragement to me and my brothers and sister -- "don't make the mistake I did, hang in there" -- helped me get through the dripping paint in the boiler room and getting up at 4:15 a.m. to make it to the teletype machines on time. (Wikipedia calls them "teleprinters.")

Is college still worth it for young people today? Successful college dropouts Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs cause many to question its value. College tuition has gone up faster than almost anything else. Many graduates struggle to find jobs in their fields. Two-thirds of 2010 graduates had student loan debt, averaging $25,250.

And yet many believe, as I do, that college IS still worth it. The unemployment rate for college graduates is half the national average. Even if you're born in the lowest economic stratum, you're much more likely to move out of poverty if you earn a degree. College does not pay simply by raising your job prospects. In a rapidly changing economy, college teaches the most valuable of lessons: how to keep teaching one's self for life -- the kind of education that never becomes outdated. Families should not be frightened by high tuition. At Elizabethtown College, like many colleges, 90 percent of students get some form of financial aid, depending on their ability to pay. Because they charge higher tuition and have larger endowments, private colleges often cost parents less than public institutions. And well over half our students have jobs on campus.

Students and parents should carefully consider their borrowing capacity in relation to job prospects and wages in the student's desired career field. Students should not borrow to pay living expenses any more than they have to. As student loan expert Mark Kantrowitz points out, a $10 pizza a week over four years equals $2,000 of debt, or $4,000 when paid back: "Live like a student in college so that you don't have to live like a student when you graduate." For many students, community colleges or technical education after high school is the right choice. Part-time work while in college, living at home, and GI benefits are essential strategies for others. Working adults can take advantage of special programs to finish their degrees. Almost half the adult students at Elizabethtown's Center for Continuing Education and Distance Learning have their tuition paid by employers.

Even with all these strategies, college will remain a challenge for many who are deserving of a higher education opportunity. Wages for the young have not kept up. Controlling for inflation, I earned more painting and ripping off copy 40 years ago than my college-aged son earns today doing similar work. Federal Pell grants and their state-level equivalents, an essential life line for lower income students, should be increased. Those who can, should pay back. My brothers, sister, and I created a scholarship fund to honor our parents' memory. With my dad's encouragement, I hung in there. We owe to it to ourselves as nation, and to future generations, to help others do the same.