Why College is Still Worth It

States have been shifting more and more of the cost of college to students and their families. But a degree is still the passkey for the high-paying jobs of the future, says Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz.

It isn’t as though Michigan Tech senior Joe Gallo doesn’t have a care in the world. Like every college student in his final semester, he still has classes to attend, homework to finish, and tests to take. But Gallo, who hails from Marquette, is more relaxed than many seniors throughout Michigan—throughout the US, in fact—because he already has a job lined up after graduation. A good job, with a $66,000 starting salary. A job for the future.

Gallo, you see, is an engineering student, majoring in both mechanical and electrical engineering. After he is handed his diploma in May, he’ll be headed to Clarksville, Tennessee, where he’ll work for Hemlock Semiconductor Group, a subsidiary of Dow Corning. The company produces poly-crystalline silicon, the raw material used in many semiconductors and solar panels.

“I’m excited,” says Gallo. “I interned there this summer, and they treat their employees very well. I’m happy to be going back. The work is interesting, and I feel like there will be some job security, too.”

You don’t hear Gallo questioning the value of a college education. After all, he’s a poster boy for the employability of graduates in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. His experience also holds up by any national measurement. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ (NACE) Spring 2011 Salary Survey reports that engineering majors account for seven of the top 10 majors in terms of starting salaries. In terms of lifetime earnings, a groundbreaking study, What’s it Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors, from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, reports that college graduates with an engineering degree earn, on average, $1,090,000 more over the course of their career than someone with a high school diploma—the greatest economic advantage of any field.

Gallo is just the latest Michigan Tech student to sign on at Dow Corning and Hemlock; the companies already employ more than 250 University alumni. “The connection matters a lot, “ he says. “The company believes that Michigan Tech gives us the education they need.”

Nonetheless, rapidly rising college costs—four times the rate of general inflation in the past twenty-five years, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education—have caused many families to wonder if higher education is worth the expense. Add to that the economic reality of shrinking employment opportunities in a whole range of industries.

Michigan Tech President Glenn Mroz says there is no question about the value of a college degree. “A college degree has always been something that is personally rewarding,” he says, “but the options it opens for career opportunities just don’t happen with any kind of regularity without it. The problem with, say, skipping college and becoming an entrepreneur is there is no backstop if you fail. A degree gives you a larger perspective and helps you roll with the punches.”

Cost has become a big factor, however, with state cutbacks putting Michigan near the bottom nationally in terms of state support for education. The net result is that families are forced to shoulder much more of the burden than in the past. Still, “it’s about more than cost,” says Michael Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council of the State Universities of Michigan (Mroz is chair of the Board of Directors this year). “By the year 2018, most jobs in Michigan will require some form of postsecondary education. We won’t have those workers if we don’t give more support to education. It has a direct impact on state prosperity, and the politicians have to recognize that.”

“It’s a completely different landscape of college funding than, say, ten years ago,” adds Mroz. “In 2003, we were getting about $55 million from the state; we’re now getting $40 million—about the same as 1968—and we have 2,500 or 2,600 more students than we did then. The change in funding gives the impression that costs have gone up dramatically, but it’s really a shift of the cost burden from the state to families.”

Why has the cost/benefit ratio of a college degree become such an issue? “One of the dramatic results of the economic downturn is that high-pay, low-skill jobs are disappearing,” says Mroz. “As the economy has begun recovering, there has been a change in the marketplace. Employers are looking for graduates with more skills—STEM skills in particular.”

Can he quantify the value of a Michigan Tech degree? “You need to look at two things: job placement rates and average starting salaries,” Mroz responds. “Our placement rate for 2011 was 95 percent, versus 87 percent in 2010. The average starting salary was $55,000 in 2011, versus $52,000 in 2010. The trend line is definitely in favor of students who graduate from here.

“The students see what’s happening and talk about it all the time,” Mroz adds. “They look at what the highest-paying degree programs are, and those tend to be the most highly attended classes. If you are skilled in STEM areas, it makes a big difference. STEM graduates are more in demand because there is a shortage of workers in industries that require those skills. The marketplace is looking for the quantitative skills, the empirical skills, the problem-solving skills, the ability to think critically while doing some kind of financial or numerical analysis.”

Which brings us back to Joe Gallo. One of the additional attractions of Michigan Tech was a high school pal named Carl Vonck, who graduated in 2011. Like Gallo, he majored in engineering and had a job waiting when he graduated—with Dresseler Mechanical Inc., his family’s heating and air-conditioning business back in Marquette. But Vonck has returned to campus because the hometown enterprise won the plumbing and HVAC contract at Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center, and he is one of the project managers. Gallo looks forward to seeing his friend and catching up over a burger. Then, he acknowledges, they may arm wrestle for the check. After all, they will both have money in their pockets.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.