05/16/2013 10:55 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Entering the 'Is College Worth It' Debate

It is everywhere. This question of "Is college worth it?" is being discussed on the news, in blogs, on websites, in chat rooms and in social media as well as living rooms across the country. I figured I needed to get into it, too.

The question is driven by money. The question would never have emerged if the price tag weren't as high and the default rate equally so. There are questions to be asked on the money side of the issue. Some have to do with how colleges are priced. For a long time, parents were making demands for more facilities, lower faculty/student ratios, and amenities the equivalent of first-class hotels. These things cost money. When we were all more flush than we are now, that seemed more reasonable than it does in our more austere environment. But the price tag remains for those investments. However there is no question that colleges could be more efficient. We can find waste there just as we can in any institution (like government for example...) So asking to achieve the goals of college in a more cost-effective way seems sensible.

At the same time, there are policy questions that affect the money issue. Financial aid is given based on a formula of 12 semesters of aid, and summers no longer count. However, given that there are more adults going to college than ever before and doing so while managing jobs and families, does this limitation make sense? These students are going to approach college in non-traditional ways because they have to. The change in the college-going population is going to have other impacts. Whereas college was once for preparing students for lives and work of the middle or upper classes, it is now requisite for lives and work at every level of society. The job market has shifted from manufacturing to knowledge based, and even an auto mechanic has to know computer science and other technical and communications skills. We also no longer assume lifetime employment in one field, so preparation for lifetime learning and intellectual agility is key for social and economic mobility.

But all students are not given equal preparation for college level work. The same socio-economic factors are at play in the distribution of resources in all levels of education. The more affluent students continue to get the goodies in the K-12 education realm. So from a policy standpoint, there has to be allowance for either remediation prior to college, or ideally the K-12 system will be fixed.

What these students are also often directed to do with college is to take courses that are very, very specifically vocational -- like medical coding. Then, when that field shifts they have to retool again as opposed to the liberal arts student who knows how to navigate many arenas along life's path. Yet there are officials who would have us weaken the liberal arts path (often the one on which their own careers were built.) Thus the students most disadvantaged by poor education in the first place would be relegated to low-paying jobs for which they have to continually retool. This will only widen the gap, already greater than it has ever been, between those who have, and those who do not.

The debate seems to have moved from "how to fix it" to the question of "is it worth fixing." This is interesting in that minority, first generation and immigrant students are, based on pure demographics, entering the higher educational system in greater numbers. These students not only come often with deficits in the academic realm from broken K-12 education and need remediation in basic skills of math and writing, but also do not have the cultural capital of middle class students. They do not know how colleges work or how what takes place in the classroom prepares them for the workplace. So to some extent the failures of the system - the low graduation rates and high default rates are not their fault but the fault of a high school environment that not only fails to produce students who are academically college ready, but also are not equipped with tools to navigate college.

Having been a marketing executive before my career as an academic dean in diverse settings, I also note that colleges themselves do not do a good job of sharing with students the rules of the road. Some campuses have orientations, but for bewildered and overwhelmed first year students the material goes in one ear and out the other. These students are intimidated to ask questions and often culturally proscribed from asking for help. Counter to the reality that asking is a workplace skill, they feel compelled to go it alone. So one would think that materials and websites might make for more transparency, but this is not the case. I have had to revamp websites and materials at every school where I have worked to make them student friendly. And faculty do less advising but there never seems to be enough funding for advisement, learning communities or other tools that have been found to help make college more student friendly. Ironic.

So when we ask if college is worth it because students don't seem to be succeeding and incur debt, are we blaming the victim? Worse, given the demographic shift of the student population, are we saying that college is not worth it for some segments of the population? Is it worth it for my kids but not for those other people? Are we actually solidifying the widening gap between those who have and those who do not? Are we behaving like elitists instead of the all embracing country we profess to be?

To learn more about Dr. Marcia Cantarella's book I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide and how you can overcome the obstacles on the path to your degree, visit