Of course money is a factor, and schools have gotten insanely expensive. I’m glad to hear that more people are finding alternative routes - it shouldn’t be that everyone needs college because quite frankly many career paths don’t require it and many aren’t smart enough for it (and thus the debt will be crushing).
But I wouldn’t dismiss its value in being taught how to think. I wish there was a bigger focus in physics, math, and philosophy for those who didn’t know what to do - learn one of those and you can do just about anything.
4) A social / networking experience. As an adult, rarely will you interact so often with so many people of your age.
5. A signaling mechanism. I have X credentials so give me job Y. This is far from ideal because the signal can be noisy. But it is a data point. It's similar to how physics PhD's are targeted for quant finance roles - they've signaled they can solve hard problems!
I think the benefits of a liberal arts education are probably worth everything its proponents say. Having a well rounded education, which exposes one to not just new ideas but an openness to new ways of thinking, is invaluable. I’ve hobbled together what I can from earnest interest (and some free courses from universities which opened up their lectures), and I’ve grown a lot from that. I hesitate to imagine how much more I’d have benefited from college being described not as a vehicle for future success but as a part of becoming a person in a world that only gets more complex—with age, responsibility, and time in a society.
I lucked out on the career front, but a more formal and broad education is something I really regret not pursuing at the time it most fit my life trajectory. And I think everyone benefits from that spirit of education continuing to exist.
As somebody with a PhD, I say ho hum. I only took on 5 figures of debt, after quitting tech after the "dot com bubble." I had been bored out of my skull with the monotony and lack of intellectual challenge. But 7 figures of opportunity cost? Maybe even more, if I had joined the right startup. But I moved from low tech to high tech, using my degree in industry. Money is nice, sure, and can solve some problems in life. But real value is satisfaction. It doesn't have a price tag. There isn't a number of digits that would make me reconsider my choice.
If your primary measure of success is wealth, then university has never been the answer.
1. If you're looking for a professional trade school, go to a state school for undergrad. Every elite graduate who joins a BigCo after finishing finds themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with ten state school graduates who paid a fraction as much as they did to get to the same exact place.
2. If you're looking for an elite finishing school, well, there's only so many schools at the top. Ivies or Stanford or bust. If you don't get in, or can't afford to go, well, this route simply isn't open to you. Just don't fool yourself into thinking some small land grant college few people have heard of will give you the same thing. Elite finishing schools are what they are because of the connections you form there, not the educations they offer.
3. You have a much stronger head-start on the rest of the academic market if you start at one of a handful of schools, places like MIT or CalTech. You can, of course, still end up in academia coming from a state school, but it's much, much harder to stand out, much harder to get involved with undergraduate research, much harder to put together a strong academic portfolio not for any graduate school but for connected graduate schools.
Go to an Ivy League and major in history and you still have a better chance at getting a job at an elite investment bank than someone who goes to a non target state school and majors in statistics or something.
Attend more actual college, read less Howard Zinn.
There's a ton of non monetary rewards that can be had cheaply from learning, whether it is art, history, or any of the non technical professions. This value can be had for pennies on the dollar at community colleges without locking oneself into a 4-year degree track. You can ignore it GEs and simply take the classes you want to learn. You don't have to front load education into your early twenties and then stop completely once you are done.