YOU cannot place a value on education. Knowledge is the food of the soul, Plato supposedly remarked. Great literature “irrigates the deserts” of our lives, as C.S. Lewis put it. But a college education comes with a price tag—up to $60,000 a year for a four-year residential degree at an American university.
A report by PayScale, a research firm, tries to measure the returns on higher education in America (see article). They vary enormously. A graduate in computer science from Stanford can expect to make $1.7m more over 20 years than someone who never went to college, after the cost of that education is taken into account. A degree in humanities and English at Florida International University leaves you $132,000 worse off. Arts degrees (broadly defined) at 12% of the colleges in the study offered negative returns; 30% offered worse financial rewards than putting the cash in 20-year Treasury bills.
None of this matters if you are rich and studying fine art to enhance your appreciation of the family Rembrandts. But most 18-year-olds in America go to college to get a good job. That is why the country’s students have racked up $1.1 trillion of debt—more than America’s credit-card debts. For most students college is still a wise investment, but for many it is not. Some 15% of student debtors default within three years; a startling 115,000 graduates work as caretakers.