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Weighing the costs and benefits of a college education

Sunday, April 1, 2012 | 4:59 p.m. CDT; updated 9:08 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 7, 2012

ROCHEPORT — Amanda Weyerich might not know she's part of a bigger trend, but consider this:

More than 30 percent of Americans have bachelor's degrees, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau. But what is the value of that degree in today's (and tomorrow's) economy?

The Washington Post reported that the data revealed a two-year associate's degree in engineering yielded $4,257 in monthly earnings in 2009, compared with $4,000 for a four-year bachelor's degree in the liberal arts and $3,417 for a bachelor's degree in education.

So what does that mean for young adults that have been told to attend a four-year university? A growing theory is that, for many, striving for a traditional college education may not be worth it — at least financially.  According to the census data, associate's degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects) often bring a better paying job in today's market than bachelor's degrees in the humanities.

"So the point here," Kurt Bauman, chief of the Census Bureau's Education and Social Stratification Branch, said in a telephone news conference reported by the Post, "is that sometimes a subject a person has pursued is as important as how far they went in school."

What's a young adult to do? Take out a student loan to earn a bachelor's degree in the humanities, or study a STEM subject for less time, and possibly lower cost, and earn more? Which raises another fundamental question for young people today: Do you go to college to become a critical thinker and a more well-rounded person, or do you go to college to learn the skills necessary to get a job?

That brings me back to Amanda Weyerich, who I met when I visited Rocheport, a tiny antiquing and tourist town of about 200 just to the west of Columbia. Weyerich, 28, is one of the few young adults living there.  She had married when she was 18 and had her first child at 19. When she got divorced, she was attending Missouri State University, working full time and trying to raise her daughter. "And I felt like you stretch yourself too thin, and you can't do any of it well. It's practically impossible," Weyerich said.

The prospect of making more money — and making it faster— led her to halt her studies at Missouri State University and enroll in the surgical technology program at South Central Career Center. She took this route not out of some great passion, but "because you make a decent amount of money for two years of school."

"It was all about the money— and it was easy," Weyerich explained. "I had a baby, I was on my own and what do you do?"

Weyerich had to prioritize.

Weyerich has since remarried and primarily works as a homemaker while she works one day a week as a surgical technologist. Weyerich's husband works full time as a nurse at University Hospital in Columbia. Now the pragmatic mother of three, she hasn't given up on her own dreams. She says she wants to go back to school for an advanced degree in religion and anthropology, and to travel.

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.


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