By Sarah Kaufman
Friday, September 10, 2010; C01
Across the region and around the country, parents are kissing their college-bound kids -- and potentially up to $200,000 in tuition, room and board -- goodbye.
Especially in the supremely well-educated Washington area, this is expected. It's a rite of passage, part of an orderly progression toward success.
Or is it . . . herd mentality?
Hear this, high achievers: If you crunch the numbers, some experts say, college is a bad investment.
"You've been fooled into thinking there's no other way for my kid to get a job . . . or learn critical thinking or make social connections," hedge fund manager James Altucher says.
Altucher, president of Formula Capital, says he sees people making bad investment decisions all the time -- and one of them is paying for college.
College is overrated, he says: In most cases, what you get out of it is not worth the money, and there are cheaper and better ways to get an education. Altucher says he's not planning to send his two daughters to college.
"My plan is to encourage them to pursue a dream, at least initially," Altucher, 42, says. "Travel or do something creative or start a business. . . . Whether they succeed or fail, it'll be an interesting life experience. They'll meet people, they'll learn the value of money."
Certainly, you'd be forgiven for thinking this argument reeks of elitism. After all, Altucher is an Ivy Leaguer. He's rolling in dough. Easy for him to pooh-pooh the status quo.
But, it turns out, his anti-college ideas stem from personal experience. After his first year at Cornell University, Altucher says his parents lost money and couldn't afford tuition. So he paid his own way, working 60 hours a week delivering pizza and tutoring, on top of his course load.
He left Cornell thousands of dollars in debt. He also left with a degree in computer science. But it took failing at several investment schemes, losing large sums of money and then studying the stock market on his own -- analyzing Warren Buffett's decisions so closely he ended up writing a book about him -- for Altucher to learn enough about the financial world to survive in it. He thinks he would have been better off getting the real-world lessons earlier, rather than thrashing himself to pay for school and shouldering so much debt.
It's cold comfort, but the loans put him in good company: Hundreds of billions of dollars of national student-loan debt has now overtaken American credit-card debt, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, using numbers compiled by FinAid.org, a Web site for college financial aid information.
"There's a billion other things you could do with your money," Altucher says. One option: Invest the money you'd spend on tuition in Treasury bills for your child's retirement. According to Altucher, $200,000 earning 5 percent a year over 50 years would amount to $2.8 million.
Few families have that kind of money lying around. But if you can give your child $10,000 or so to start his own business, Altucher says, your child will reap practical lessons never taught in a classroom. Later, when he's more mature and focused, college might be more meaningful.
* * *
The hefty price tag of a college degree has some experts worried that its benefits are fading.
"I think it makes less sense for more families than it did five years ago," says Richard Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University who has been studying education issues. "It's become more and more problematic about whether people should be going to college."
That applies not just to astronomically priced private schools but to state schools as well, where tuitions have spiked. Student loans can postpone the pain of paying, but they come due when many young adults are at their most financially vulnerable, and default rates are high. Even community colleges, while helping some to keep costs down, prompt many to take out loans -- which can land them in severe credit trouble.
According to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 31 percent of loans made to community college students are in default. (The same report found that 25 percent of all government student loans default.) Default on a student loan and face dire consequences, beyond a bad credit record -- which can tarnish hopes of getting a car, an apartment or even a job: Uncle Sam can claim your tax refunds and wages.
Now, take a key argument in favor of getting a four-year degree, the one that says on average, those with one earn more than those without it. Education Department numbers support this: In 2008, the median annual earnings of young adults with bachelor's degrees was $46,000; it was $30,000 for those with high school diplomas or equivalencies. This means that, for those with a bachelor's degree, the middle range of earnings was about 53 percent more than for those holding only a high school diploma.
But a lot of college graduates fall outside the middle range -- and many stand to make considerably less.
"If you major in accounting or engineering, you're pretty likely to get a return on your investment," Vedder says. "If you're majoring in anthropology or social work or education, the rate on return is going to be a good deal lower, on average.
"I've talked to some of my own students who've graduated and who are working in grocery stores or Wal-Mart," he says. "The fellow who cut my tree down had a master's degree and was an honors grad."
The unemployment rate among those with bachelor's degrees is at an all-time high. In 1970, when the overall unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, unemployment among college graduates was negligible, at 1.2 percent, Vedder says, citing figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But this year, with the national rate of unemployment at 9.6 percent, unemployment for college graduates has risen to 4.9 percent -- more than half the rate of the general population. The bonus for those with degrees is "less pronounced than it used to be," Vedder says.
"The return on investment is clearly lower today than it was five years ago," he says. "The gains for going to college have leveled off."
Before hackles are raised about boiling the salutary effects of higher education down to its cost, there are obvious disclaimers: Education is a priceless thing. Many high-school graduates are not ready for independence and adult responsibilities, and college provides a safe place for them to grow up -- for a fee.
But what about the lessons offered by the success stories that have unspooled along a different path? Dropouts are the toast of the dot-com world. To the non-degreed billionaires' club headed by Microsoft's Bill Gates (Harvard's most famous quitter) and Apple's Steve Jobs (left Oregon's Reed College after a single semester), add: Michael Dell (founder of Dell Computers, University of Texas dropout), Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen (quit Washington State University) and Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle Systems, gave up on the University of Illinois).
Success sans sheepskin isn't only for the technology set.
David Geffen, co-founder of DreamWorks, bowed out of several schools, including the University of Texas.
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder dropped out of the University of Maryland.
Barry Gossett, chief executive of Baltimore's Acton Mobile Industries, builders of temporary trailers, also left Maryland without a degree. (No hard feelings, apparently: In 2007, he donated $10 million to the school.)
Perhaps these are unique individuals in whom a driving entrepreneurial spirit outstripped the plodding pace of book learning.
Or perhaps they point to a new model.
"There's nothing you can't do on your own," Altucher says. A provocative idea -- and a liberating one. Even if it's not entirely true.
But you don't have to agree with Altucher to concede that the debt-stress many graduates or their parents -- or both -- are left with after tossing off the cap and gown works against the merits of the degree.
Even if a kid doesn't party his way through college, chances are he or his family has plowed a boatload of money into a few memorable classes and a lot of boredom.
On top of that, you don't know how big a boatload it'll be. For many college students, four years of anticipated tuition payments grows to five years or six -- or more. Government statistics show just 57 percent of full-time college students get their bachelor's degrees in six or fewer years.
And the rest . . . don't.
* * *
In her youth, Toni Reinhart, 55, owner of Comfort Keepers Reston, a licensed home-care agency in Northern Virginia, abandoned hopes of completing a business degree at George Mason University. There was that C in accounting, and then trigonometry. . . .
"My problem was not being able to put the time in to learn things I wasn't interested in," she says.
Has dropping out held her back?
"Oh sure," says Reinhart, a self-described late-bloomer. "But maybe that's good. Maybe it held me back from things I shouldn't have been doing anyway."
Now she manages 56 employees and in recent years hit the million-dollar mark in gross revenue.
"I understand the case for finishing, because you've proven you can stick with something," she says. "But wouldn't it be nice if we did have another path that didn't put people in debt for . . . $100,000? Isn't there another way to instill those kinds of lessons in people that would be cheaper?"
Nelson Cortez, 20, wishes there were. The Napa resident starts his third year this month at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He's received state grants and works 15 hours a week while school is in session, but with the loans he's taken out, he estimates he's already about $25,000 in debt. This is why, when the California Board of Regents last year announced a 32 percent increase in fees, he joined protests that galvanized students around the state -- and set off similar protests around the country.
Cortez helped shut down the Santa Cruz campus and traveled to the District to rally outside the U.S. Capitol. (On Oct. 2, students will demonstrate on the Mall for affordable education as part of the One Nation march, organized by civil rights and youth groups and unions.)
"Rent was due yesterday, and I was $20 short, and I'm running around the house looking for $20," Cortez says. His money problems have caused him to question whether he's made the right decision: "Am I going to be able to afford it, should I take a semester off? . . . I do have in the back of my mind, would it be better not to have those loans and just work?"
According to the Education Department, between 1997-98 and 2007-08, prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board at public institutions of higher education rose by 30 percent, and prices at private institutions rose by 23 percent -- after adjustments for inflation. "The reason colleges have been getting away with raising their fees so much is that loans allow parents to tough it out," Vedder says.
Federal government moves, such as tuition tax credits, allow those paying college costs to subtract a certain amount from their tax bills. But it does little to alleviate the financial burden, Vedder says, adding that it gives colleges an excuse to raise costs further.
* * *
The cost of college is putting the financial screws to an entire generation, say student activists.
"I think it's absolutely despicable that students are asked to pay that much," says Lindsay McCluskey, president of the United States Student Association. "In terms of public education, you can't even call that public when students are taking out an average of $25,000 to complete college and then are paying off student loan debt until they're 50 or 60 years old."
A recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she majored in anthropology, McCluskey is paying down a $20,000 student loan. She thinks it will probably take her a decade to dig out of that hole -- while the balance is accumulating interest -- because she can't afford to make more than the minimum monthly payments.
"For my generation," McCluskey, 23, says, "that loan debt is taking the place of the house we could be buying or a number of other investments we could be making in our lives. The loan debt just sucks a lot of that out."
Now consider Jeremiah Stone, 25. The graduate of Rockville's Thomas S. Wootton High School is living in Paris, pursuing a drool-worthy international career as a chef. After high school, he took a job as a barback in a Houston's Restaurant, worked up to kitchen assistant, took a nine-month cooking course at the French Culinary Institute in New York and finally landed in France, where he has freelanced as a chef throughout the country. Eventually he hopes to open his own restaurant in New York.
"People I meet for the first time, they're always saying, 'Oh, if I had another career, I'd be a pastry chef instead of becoming a lawyer,' " Stone says. In the eyes of some of his friends, he says, he's become emblematic of simply doing what you love. In his case, it turns out that not following the herd was the best investment of all.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.