Isaac Frumkin
Woodrow Wilson High School
Washington, DC
12th Grade
Third Place Winner, District of Columbia

The worth of a college education is today’s quarter million dollar question. Given that the current annual
cost of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s alma mater is a whopping $63,025, sending one student to
college for four years can require over $250,000.[1] Throughout the country, students are leaving college
in considerable debt and with relatively little work experience. Nevertheless, a college education has
essentially become a prerequisite in the modern job market, and thus, carries a great deal of importance
for future success.

In order to prove the overwhelming benefit of a college education, the main concern of those who
contend that college is not worth the cost must be addressed: the resulting financial burden. At first
glance, college tuition can appear to be an impossibility for families of college-aged children. Even more
frightening is that prices are rising, and rising fast. The published cost of tuition and fees was 3.13 times higher in 2017-18 than it was in 1987-88 for public four-year schools and 2.29 times higher for private four-year schools. Since 2007, costs have risen 3.2 percent annually for public institutions and 2.4
percent for private institutions.[2]

However, the published tuition can be misleading as there are numerous opportunities that allow
students to attend college at a more affordable cost. For one, in-state residents generally pay less than
$10,000 in annual tuition at public colleges in their state.[3] Over 14 million students are currently
enrolled in public colleges which cost significantly less than the $34,000 average tuition at private
schools.[4] Furthermore, the federal government annually dedicates over $20 billion in grant aid, as well
as close to $100 billion in low-interest loans.[5] Initiatives like the District of Columbia College Access
Program not only provide additional financial assistance, but also offer guidance and counseling for
prospective college students. Thanks to federal aid, institutional grants, state grants, and other sources,
undergraduate students receive an average of around $14,500 in financial aid per year.[6]

Even the much sought-after Harvard diploma that Gates and Zuckerberg forfeited has become more
affordable. Families with incomes between $65,000 and $150,000 are expected to contribute anywhere
from 0-10% of their income, while families with an annual income under $65,000, representing 20% of
Harvard’s undergraduate student body, don’t have to pay a cent.[7] All eight Ivy league schools, widely
considered to be among the elite institutions of the world, offer need-blind admission to U.S. citizens.
This ensures that financial need is ignored in the application review process, and therefore, is not a factor
in admission decisions.

Despite the increasing focus on making college accessible for everyone, most students still graduate with
some level of debt. In fact, close to 70 percent of students will graduate with an average of
approximately $30,000 of loan debt.[8] While the looming debt is certainly daunting, the positive
implications of possessing a bachelor’s degree make the debt well worth it in the long run.

The stark disparities between the career paths of the college-educated versus those with only a high
school diploma are revealing. In 2015, the unemployment rate for those with only a high school degree
was more than double the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree. Median earnings for
adults aged 25-30 showed a similar trend; the salaries of college graduates were 64% higher.[9] Based
on odds alone, it seems clear that attending college is a much safer choice than choosing not to.

David Autor, an economist and professor at MIT, published a paper that definitively proved the economic
benefit of a college education.[10] His conclusion: not going to college will cost an individual about half a
million dollars. Autor’s finding came from subtracting the cost of tuition and fees from the lifetime gap
between the earnings of college graduates and high school graduates. While paying for college certainly
requires a significant financial commitment, it would be impractical to theorize that one has a better
chance of making more money without a college education.

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg’s decisions, however, were not due to monetary concerns. Both students
grew up comfortably in white-collar households and attended prestigious private secondary schools.
Their reasons for dropping out of college were unique. They seemingly possessed a more advanced level
of information and intuition than college courses and professors could provide them. In their eyes, they
had exhausted the benefit of college as they both already had nuanced plans for securing successful
careers in relatively untapped niches.

While there are certainly exceptions, like Gates and Zuckerberg, the norm produces overwhelming results
in support of college education. A recent survey of 11,745 U.S. leaders, including CEOs, politicians, and
judges, found that 94 percent of these leaders attended college.[11] From an economic standpoint, the
advantage is equally transparent. Per hour, Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn 98 percent more
than people without a degree.[12] Rising to the level of esteem and financial security that many
Americans aspire to is objectively more attainable with a college degree than without one.

So what is it about college that makes it truly rewarding? Some argue that the entire value of college
manifests itself in the physical paper that dignifies graduation. While that piece of paper is critically
relevant for post-graduate job seekers, the skills learned and relationships developed in college also have
innumerable positive implications. Stimulating courses in a variety of subjects allow students to cultivate
a broad intellectual base. Through the completion of extensive study for a major, students delve in-depth
into a field that particularly interests them. Students have countless resources available to them to
further their studies and understanding of a subject. Knowledgeable professors, comprehensive libraries,
lab and research facilities, as well as free tutoring, are common features of colleges. Large college
lecture classes, oft-criticized for being impersonal, are frequently broken down into smaller discussion
sections to help students better grasp what was covered in the course. Many colleges also provide
opportunities for students to study abroad and learn in a more experiential way.

Relationships fostered on college campuses are another feature of the undergraduate experience that
cannot be overlooked. Discussions, both in and out of classes, can prove to be thought-provoking and
even career-altering. After all, Zuckerberg developed the concept of Facebook with the help of some of
his classmates. With the advent of diversity initiatives, college campuses are progressively becoming
true mixing pots of students from varying geographic, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. As a
result, college students are exposed to new perspectives that can increase their cultural awareness. The
inevitable networking of students with their peers and school alumni can introduce students to potential
future jobs and partners.

Despite dropping out of college, Gates and Zuckerberg are big proponents of higher education. The Bill
and Melinda Gates Foundation has dedicated nearly $2 billion to improving education in the United
States, while Zuckerberg has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to different global education programs.[13] Gates has even gone as far as saying that, “without success in college … students will
have limited economic mobility and fewer opportunities throughout their lives.”[14]

Work Cited


[1] "How Aid Works." Harvard College, college.harvard.edu/financial-aid/how-aid-works. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018.
[2] Seltzer, Rick. "Net Price Keeps Creeping Up." Inside Higher Ed [Washington, DC], 25 Oct. 2017,
www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/10/25/tuition-and-fees-still-rising-faster-aid-college-board-reportshows. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
[3] "What's the Price Tag for a College Education?" COLLEGEdata, 1st Financial Bank USA,
www.collegedata.com/cs/content/content_payarticle_tmpl.jhtml?articleId=10064. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
[4] "College Enrollment in the United States from 1965 to 2015 and Projections up to 2026 for Public and
Private Colleges (in Millions)." Statista, 2018, www.statista.com/statistics/183995/us-college-enrollmentand- projections-in-public-and-private-institutions/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018. Chart.
[5] "Financial Costs and Benefits of College." Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/college-careersmore/college-admissions/get-started/importance-of-college/a/financial-costs-and-benefits-of-college. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
[6] Trends in Student Aid 2017. 2017. Trends in Higher Education Series. CollegeBoard,
trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2017-trends-student-aid.pdf. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
[7] "How Aid Works." Harvard College, college.harvard.edu/financial-aid/how-aid-works. Accessed 23 Feb. 2018.
[8] DiGangi, Christine. "The Average Student Loan Debt in Every State." USA Today, 28 Apr. 2017,
www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2017/04/28/average-student-loan-debt-everystate/
100893668/. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
[9] Back to School Statistics. Government Printing Office. National Center for Education Statistics,
nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372. Accessed 22 Feb. 2018.
[10] Autor, David. "Skills, Education, and the Rise of Earnings Inequality Among the “Other 99 Percent.'"
Science, vol. 344, no. 6186, 23 May 2014, pp. 843-51, doi:10.1126/science.1251868. Accessed 22 Feb.
2018.