The Madness of March


With all eyes on college basketball, Billy Bey questions whether college is for everyone.

The madness of March is upon us. The 68 teams have been picked, the regions have been set, and office copiers around the country are in overdrive as we all strive to fill out the perfect bracket. During the next few weeks we’ll see nail-biting finishes, heartbreaking losses, and thrilling triumphs. But all the excitement won’t only be happening on the basketball court. March is also the time when admissions letters are mailed to college-bound teenagers across the country. Some will be admitted to their dream school, some will have to settle for a safety, but few will question whether going to college makes sense. Has our society placed so much emphasis on a college education that we’ve come to assume it’s for everyone?

There is no questioning the value of a college degree. A recent U.S. Census Bureau report shows that over an adult’s working life, college graduates can expect to earn, on average, about $900,000 more than high school graduates. Additionally, the average income for young adults (25-34) with a bachelor’s degree is about $45,000, compared to only $30,000 for young adults with only a high school degree. But notice these statistics are for college graduates. Attending college is very different than attaining a degree and graduation rates are far lower than many people realize.

Each year the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida compiles a report with the graduation rates among the colleges and universities participating in the tournament. This year’s field of 68 boasts a whopping 29 schools that failed to graduate 60% of their players within 6 years. Last year’s Champion, UConn, posted only a 31% graduation rate for its players. Low player graduation rates are hardly a shock to those who follow college basketball. But few people realize that overall graduation rates don’t fare much better.

A report released last year by Complete College America, a nonprofit funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, examined college graduation rates broken down by different categories. The report found that nationally, four-year colleges graduated an average of just 53% of entering students within six years. The numbers are far worse for community colleges, where only about 3 in 10 full-time students graduated with an associate degree within three years.

Low graduation rates only tell part of the story. If tuition were affordable or financial aid readily available, there would be little to lose in deciding to “give it the old college try,” as it were. However, despite our current depressed economic environment, tuition rates continue to rise. For the year 2011, tuition and fees at public colleges were up more than 8 percent from the year before.  College is a significant investment and one that has a meaningful impact on the family budget. In 2008, the net cost at a four-year public university amounted to 28 percent of the median family income. If Junior decides to enroll at a private university, the net cost jumps to 76 percent of income.

For many graduating high school students, college is viewed as a rite of passage and often taken for granted. Many even expect parents to cover the bulk of the bill. With the rising costs of tuition and the strains on the family budget, does it make sense to fund four to six years of partying and sleeping on a college campus? Sadly, that’s what is happening at these institutions of ‘higher learning’.

In their book, “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” sociology professors Richard Arum, of New York University, and Joseph Roksa, of the University of Virginia, note that students spend 51 percent of their time socializing and 24 percent sleeping. As for academics, nine percent of time is spent in class and only 7 percent spent of time is spent studying. The book cites a new standardized test called the College Learning Assessment which was given to 2,300 students at 24 different institutions. The test measured a wide range of skills including critical thinking, complex reading and writing, and was given to students in their first semester and at the end of their second year. The study found that 45 percent of students showed no significant gain in learning over two years of college. That seems like a poor return on investment, considering rampant tuition increases.

Please don’t get the impression that I’m arguing that college is a waste of time and money. My personal success is a product of a college education and I will no doubt steer my future children down that route. But I hope I won’t be too proud to recognize when it makes sense to seek an alternative path. We all have different skills and capabilities. Some children succeed in an academic setting, some succeed on the basketball court, and yes, some will succeed without a college degree. That won’t be discussed a great deal this March, though, as brackets are tallied and an NCAA champion is crowned.

While you’re watching the dazzling athleticism of the NCAA, spare a thought for these young men’s futures, and ask yourself if the scholarship deal they’ve bought into, trading their extraordinary skills for an education, is being honored by the institutions whose uniforms they wear.


Photo— Schlüsselbein2007/Flickr

About Billy Bey

Billy holds a JD/MBA from the University of Virginia. He currently works in finance and lives in Santa Monica. He is an avid football fan and enjoys playing poker in his spare time. Billy is currently training for a half iron man triathlon with Team in Training and raising funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

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