A four-year college degree remains best bet for well-paying, secure career

As Michigan Future has researched what makes places prosperous, we have also learned a lot about the new realities of the job market. I want to explore what an economy constantly being reshaped by globalization and, most importantly, increasingly smarter and smarter machines (that can do more of the work people used to) means for you and your peers who are graduating from college this year.

First and foremost: you made the right decision. I know the new conventional wisdom is that we have too many four-year degree graduates, particularly in the liberal arts. Therefore, the story goes, you are likely to end up in jobs that don’t use your skills and pay too little to pay off student loans. Don’t believe it! Its not true.

In fact the exact opposite is the reality. The Pew Research Center reports: Today the unemployment rate for 25-32 year olds with a bachelors or more is 3.8 percent; for those with a two year degree or some college its 8.1 percent; and for those with a high school degree 12.2 percent.

In terms of median annual earnings for full-time workers: those with a bachelors or more earn $45,500; two-year degree or some college $30,000; high school degree $28,000.

No matter what you hear, the reality is Millennials with a four-year degree are doing substantially better than their peers without a four-year degree. End of story!

The gap in median annual earnings for young, full-time workers has grown consistently for those with a four-year degree compared to those with a high school degree, from $7,500 in 1965 to $17,500 today. The gap between 25-32 with a four-year degree and those with some college or an associates degree has grown from $5,000 in 1965 to $15,500 today. So much for, “You would have been better off going to a community college!”

No one can guarantee you a good-paying job in your field of study right out of college. The American economy since the onset of the Great Recession isn’t creating jobs fast enough to fully employ new entrants into the labor market no matter what your education attainment. But as the data indicate, you have a far better chance than those without a four-year degree. And that advantage almost certainly will grow over what is likely to be a 40-year career.

Consider this story from the New Republic:

“Sally Cameron thought she had done everything right. After studying French and Arabic at a tony liberal arts college, she knew that graduate school would help her career chances. But when she hit the job market, her Ivy League management degree didn't seem to matter. The worst recession in decades had pushed the unemployment rate to nearly 10 percent and good jobs were scarce. Sally paid the rent by tending bar and filled her time with volunteer work.

“Meanwhile, experts and government officials warned that the days ahead would be grim. For decades, a growing number of students had streamed into higher education assuming that their degrees would lead to prosperity. Now people were openly questioning whether college was really worth it.

“Sally's story sounds like the kind of depressing story filling the pages of newspapers and the popular press these days. There's only one difference: Sally Cameron earned her master's degree from Yale in 1980. The Washington Post story that described her struggles was published in 1982. For going on four decades, the press has been raising alarms that college degrees may no longer be a sound investment. Two things about these stories have remained constant: They always feature an over-educated bartender, and they are always wrong.”

This is the core lesson Michigan Future has learned. Economies are cyclical, they go up and down. But the constant is that those with the highest education attainment – with the broadest skills – do best.

The New Republic continues:

“Sally Cameron, meanwhile, isn't tending bar anymore. She's a senior manager at an international development consulting company that works under contract with USAID.

“Her recent work includes building railroads in cyclone-devastated Madagascar. Her liberal arts degree from Smith College must come in handy, since one of the two official languages there is French. That’s how things usually work out for people who get college degrees.”

Getting a four-year degree was the most reliable path to a middle class career for Boomers like Sally Cameron and me. It's even more true today. The value of a college degree is far more than how quickly a graduate gets a first job and how much it pays. These are the short term metrics that fuel the “college isn’t worth it” nonsense.

Rather, the payoff is over an entire career. It comes from having skills that give you a competitive edge in all industries and most occupations, in having skills that may not be in demand today but will be in the future and in learning how to learn so that you can better spot new opportunities and take advantage of them in a constantly changing labor market.

The push from policy makers and other thought leaders to demand that higher education prepare students for a job the day they graduate is not good either for students or the economy. Just as bad is the push to steer universities away from the liberal arts.

Building a foundation to do well over a long career is only going to grow in value in an economy where technology and globalization accelerate creative destruction. Destroying jobs and occupations and creating new, unimaginable jobs and occupations at a quicker and quicker pace.

As we describe it, successful careers will go to those who are good rock climbers, rather than ladder climbers. Those who are able both to constantly spot opportunities in a constantly changing world and have the agility to take advantage of those opportunities. Far different than career success in the past which were build around known and stable rungs of a career ladder.

Increasingly employers in knowledge-based enterprises – the source of most new good-paying jobs – understand the importance of hiring for more than job specific skills. Software entrepreneur Bill Wagner in a column for AnnArbor.com writes:

“The country, and especially Michigan, seem stuck in the mode of thinking of education as a means to a job, as a vocation. The problem with this attitude is that the hot jobs change frequently. Preparing people for one job, and one job only, creates a temporary and rigid work force.

“... Your education must prepare you for a long career that meets constant changes in the job market, and supports your own growth. The only constant during a life-long career is that youʼll need to adapt. The important question for our education system: Are you prepared for all the changes that may come in the future?

... In order to grow companies and our workforce, our education system needs to prepare people for an ever-changing world. Preparing for todayʼs hot job is the road to irrelevance. Getting a broad, rich education that lays the foundation for becoming a triple threat is the path to a very successful career.”

The diploma you will receive today from a liberal arts college – no matter what your major or what your first job after college is – puts you on the most reliable path there is to a middle class or better career. You have built the foundation to be a successful rock climber. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Paul B.
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 8:52am
This is a well written column and I agree with the opinion that an education is more valuable that targeted training. I do think both avenues have value however. A hidden variable in the statistical analysis is the consideration that those who are able to complete a four year degree program are a somewhat self selecting group (more likely to have had educated, affluent parents, more likely to have access to funding) who would make more money and find better careers in nearly any circumstance. As a follow-up to this column I'd like to ask, "how do we make this opportunity available for all people who have the capacity and desire to get a college education/"
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 11:46am
Paul, I wonder if you could be asking the wrong questions. Are you so sure it is 'funding' that prevents students going on to get a college degree? Could it be that the 'affluent parents' affect isn't about money, could it be about expectations and observation and conversations? What if a child hears about how important an education is, what if a child sees how an education helps people do what they want to do, what if a child is taught to have personal expectations and to have educational expectations? What if they get this on a regular basis in their everyday lives? Do you wonder if that might create a desire, an expectation, a willingness to do what it takes to get a degree? Have you ever know someone who worked their way through college, starting at a community college, commuting to school, living off campus, and working part time jobs to manage the cost? Have you ever wonder why or how they we willing/able to do that? Could it be that blaming cost of college is a convenient excuse that fits conventional wisdom, that avoid student and parent responsibilities, and fits into political campaigning? If you have an accepted and off repeated excuse then there is no need to change, to think, to look for different answers. I wonder if some can overcome the cost of college, why we aren’t asking then why and how they were able to succeed. I wonder if anyone has asked them how has working your way through college helped then, or asked their first employers if it help them. Price is an easy answer, but is it the right question.
Sun, 06/01/2014 - 7:45pm
Dave Leonhardt just did a terrific piece in the New York Times entitled "The Value of College: Its Not Just Correlation" that goes through the research on that a college degree adds lots of value holding entering ability constant. In terms of making four year degrees more available to all we need to reverse the billion dollars in higher ed cuts over the last decade and raise our expectations and standards based on the belief that all kids can succeed in college. Those three things––funding, expectations, and standards––are the levers that matter most.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Wed, 06/04/2014 - 12:47pm
Lou, I read the NY Times article you linked to. I anticipated from his intro that he was going to talk more about intelligence or IQ, and compare similar levels of IQ to four-year college and non-college wage levels. I didn't see much of that. I would like to see an article on IQ before and after a four-year degree. I understand the highest IQs are measured at 12 years of age, where they are lower before the child learns that much language and lower after that age for some reason. One blog compared two four-year groups, 4500 LSAT and GRE people that chose to take both tests. So they were the same actual people. That blogger took the group average LSAT 155 and equated that to the average GRE-Verbal of 560 to get an average IQ of 117 for that select group. GRE-V average scores are 470 for an equivalent IQ of 105. The average college grad is also an IQ 105. My estimate for average IQ loss for four years of college was 5 to 7 points. So when I found the average V&M SAT scores for 2010 at 1014 that comes out to an average IQ of 110 for college intended students. So that is about 5 points of loss, as I thought. I think it is important enough for someone to put the actual numbers together somewhere. A better approach might be to take the GRE database and look back at the SAT/ACT scores four years earlier when those same individuals began college. It would be nice to then compare that data to people that chose not to go to college. I'm not trying to talk down a four-year degree, I would like students to take a keen look at what it does cost. I got a four-year degree from Michigan State in 1969. I estimated it cost $32,000 back then. I worked my way through for the most part and graduated debt free. When I use the BLS inflation calculator to appreciate what that is worth in 2014 dollars, it comes out to over $200,000. I wrote a Goal for a local school: 'To Preserve the Intelligence, Initiative and Creativity of the Individual, while Increasing the Social, Moral, and Cultural of Society.' The cost may be $200,000 for a certain type of degree, the IQ loss might be 5 points, but what is the loss in Initiative and Creativity? If schools, and educators, and students ignore these things they are not likely to be preserved. If schools do not have active cost-reduction programs, their costs will certainly climb too fast, and they have. If they have a history of not matching their graduates to the job markets they move into, then the value of a four-degree is diminished by just that much as well. If it is not a goal of Education to increase the Social, Moral and Cultural level of society then those too will suffer. More could be done to increase the value of a four-year degree to the graduating student. Increasing his motivation to try, and to accept the present value are not the only factors.
Carol Churchill...
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 9:13am
In an environment that continues to question the value of a degree, I commend your support of postsecondary education. However, I take issue with your comment, "So much for 'you would have been better off going to a community college.' " You appear to contend that a four-year degree and attending a community college are mutually exclusive, when the reverse is actually true. More and more people are understanding that attending a community college as the initial step on their educational journey makes sense both economically and socially. Community college is affordable and also a wonderful way to transition into the rigor of higher education. Our liberal arts students acquire all of the foundational skills you admire (critical thinking, problem solving, communication, computational, and so on), and they regularly progress to a senior institution to earn all kinds of advanced degrees. In addition, you seem to contend that education is always a linear process. It isn't. Many times students acquire technical skills at a community college so they can support themselves and their loved ones (in degree plans that also include liberal arts requirements), then continue life-long education and training that leads to additional credentials and career options. Having the ability to be both a "rock climber" and a "ladder climber" doubles their options. Please don't join the choir of "either/or." Education is about choices that each individual makes to fulfill their goals and become productive members of their society. Community College is one exceptionally viable choice.
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 9:23am
a liberal arts degree in any subject is retro-thinking. that was the mantra in the 70's. current and future jobs require skills that are specific to implementing the thinkers' ideas. thinking about technology and doing technology require different skills. designing a building and doing the building require different skills. a degree in philosophy ? the four year degrees that are meaningful are in math, science, engineering, programming, bio-medical, allied health and business. the degree in any major people are the ones fighting for a raise in the minimum wage. so, majors do count. besides, middle class so far, is defined as a wage range, not a lifestyle. ijs
Mike R
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:46am
Perhaps a liberal arts degree would have enabled you to write a comment that uses acceptable punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and grammar, thus enabling us to understand it.
nana 63
Sun, 05/25/2014 - 10:08am
good assumption mike- it's obvious that you are one of those mis-educated people who managed to get one of those degrees that make you think you are educated enough to be critical of others. if you had a real education, you would focus on content/intent, not mechanics. this is not an audition for a job that requires all the proper moves. been there-done that. I have an Associate Degree in Nursing(RN), from a community college, made more money than them liberal arts people. I have a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education, Learning Disabilities and Emotionally Impaired. community colleges are needed more than ever, because public education is falling in quality. community colleges should be given back their once esteemed place in the education of an individual. community colleges provide a choice of paths from which an individual can choose. I was educated in a K-14 school district, attending the Jr. College was a choice, made by many, who continued on to additional and diverse degrees. I am retired, 8yrs, and enjoying it. so, if you want a mechanically correct response to anything--pay me. ijs
Mike R
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 11:47am
"Propter", not "proper".
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 1:06pm
wow, good call.
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 12:07pm
Mr. Glazer has his answer. But maybe we need to figure out what the question is before we leap to the answer. In today's society is money the only answer? Mr. Glazer maybe misunderstanding how education benefits people. My education provided me with the tools to do things that satificed me, that challenged me, that help me to learn to change, to be part of change. My reality was that my education got me in the 'door' but it was what I did with it that help me to succeed personally. I was talking to my daughter recently while she was preparing to present at her kids career day, as she talked her energy began to grow and never once did she mention money. She is an engineer and she talked about the work, the challenges, the ideas, being part of an environment that had challenging opportunities, about teams, about success. Maybe the answer isn't money, maybe the question are what interests the kids, what do they want to do, how do they want to live. Maybe we should be talking to the students about how the world is always changing and how they can be part of the change, maybe we talk about what research and innovation are and who does is and how, maybe we show the students how what they are learning and what they can learn will prepare them for what they want to do. Maybe, rather then giving them an answer (our answer) we help them to ask their questions.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Wed, 05/28/2014 - 8:47pm
Duane May 22, 2014 at 11:46 am Hi, I think some questions from the business side of life might be in order too. From the business side 'Employee Earnings' and benefits and social security, are 'Costs'. So there is a Cost-Benefit assessment that business must do with four-year candidates before a job is filled. What value does the average four-year degree costing our company $45,500 plus, in 2012 dollars, bring to us? Does he or she bring real world Experience? What is the value of hiring someone with 'no experience' compared to someone 'with 3 to 5 years experience'? I know the choice most hiring managers would make. I recommend to young people that they try to get some real world experience in addition to their academic studies. One Michigan school has students working at GM for six months a year. I interviewed a mother of a National Merit Scholar when I was at Rolls-Royce and she told me what the National Merit people were looking for with young people. I wonder if people seeking a four-year degree are so diligent as that mom, when it comes to what industry is looking for. Does he or she bring the ability to Observe? I and many others, believe that skills in industry are acquired by first 'Observing' the skill. I wonder how many career bound young people know how important the ability to Observe is? It is basic to Science. But who teaches it, and who learns it? Does he or she bring the Willingness to Learn, the knowledge and skills industry will require of a new employee as they come up to full high-quality participation and speed in their new position? My experience has been that new four-year college employees have a certain belief when they arrive and it is most difficult for them to shake. They have been taught since day one, that they already know what is needed to pass any multiple choice test and they must not make a mistake. They have an unshakeable confidence in that ability. Then an employer asks them to do something, or to demonstrate something... They get very nervous. They may not have ever been asked to do something like this and be fully responsible for it. Has he or she been asked to demonstrate, with actual objects, how each thing they have learned applies to something they will be doing in life? I think it is likely that NO thing has been demonstrated in this way K-16. Has he or she been asked to apply each thing they have learned to something they will be doing in life? One study on the web of the third international math and science survey, concluded that American girls scored 'zero' on the math and science questions that requires one to apply the knowledge. That of course was after one subtracted out the 'multiple choice' factor of the test. Boys scored just 11% compared to up to 61% for the males in some countries. Does he or she bring the Respect, and command the Respect, that will be needed to operate as a professional? Does he or she understand that their career will depend on the value of what they do on the job for their company?
Doug D
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 12:09pm
Another great summary Lou. I read this after the Wall Street article on population growth also clustering in large metros,another phenomenon you've noted. Whether it is two years, four years or four plus post grad or on-going training, smarter always increases the odds on success. Hard work and luck are factors too, but they are even better when you add the knowledge advantage.
Charles Richards
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 1:16pm
This is not well thought out. Mr. Glazer is confusing some with everyone. Some, those with superior ability, will benefit from a four year college degree. The rest, probably seventy five percent of high school graduates, will derive more benefit from a two year degree, vocational training, apprenticeship or on the job training. Switzerland and Germany seem to have considerable success with this approach. The differences in unemployment and income that he cites do not necessarily result from different levels of education. It may very well be that both have a common cause: differences in level of ability. Of course, he subscribes to the bedrock progressive belief that all are equally gifted, and that differences in outcomes are entirely due to institutional arrangements. It is trivially easy to cite an anecdote of someone who studied languages and went on to notable success. But how common is that? And he undercuts his case by noting that Ms. Cameron also got a graduate level Ivy league management degree. Perhaps that, rather than her liberal arts degree, accounted for her success. Mr. Glazer says, "Therefore, the story goes, you are likely to end up in jobs that don’t use your skills and pay too little to pay off student loans." Unfortunately, that will be the case for many graduates. They will have incurred far too much debt for the skills they have acquired. And what about those not present at the commencement? This is a case of survivor bias. Those who incurred significant student debt and failed to get a degree are in a disastrous situation. Would he have advised those individuals six years ago to get a four year degree? By what criteria would he recommend some individuals get a four year degree? He has not given wise, shrewd advice. The quality of that advice is an indictment of a four year liberal education.
Mike R
Fri, 05/23/2014 - 12:00pm
Interesting argument, but you completely ignore the underlying Pew report: for whatever reasons, people earning a four-year degree earn substantially more over a lifetime than those who do not. There's nothing wrong with matching a technical education to the skill set of an individual, but doing so doesn't mean that individual will make more money over a lifetime. I'd like to know what is your support for the broad statement, "probably seventy five percent of high school graduates, will derive more benefit from a two year degree, vocational training, apprenticeship or on the job training." Didn't you just simply make that up to support your thesis that a liberal arts education is a waste of time?
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 2:33pm
Mike, I have my reservations when people use statistics to make a social point. I am curious where Mr. Richards’ data came from. I am concerned how the Pew data was used. I am disappointed with data that is ignored. I have not heard the 75% number before and wonder is that a reference to those who don’t complete a 4 year degree or how it might relate. The way Pew data is presented causes concern, it suggests any degree holder will financially do significantly better than non-degreed people. Could it be that certain degrees raise the average, some significantly, while others draw it down significantly? And if a degree is significantly below the Pew average could it be below the non-degreed income? Can we be as sure as Mr. Glazer that all degrees are financially justifiable? I personally see great value in continuing education and a college education. I am concerned that broad claims of financial returns from having any college degree can contribute to people burdening themselves/society with large debts for a degree and one that will not pay enough to remove the debt burden. I realize this is an unintended consequence of Mr. Glazer’s desired outcome. I wonder if the cost of a degree should be ignored in an article when making a blanket promotion for all degrees. My concern that if people are not given a true view of such educational realities Mr. Glazer’s desires can become an economic and emotional hardship if not tragedy for people. Do you think along with data accuracy, that data presentation and data omission are issues that readers and editors should be sensitive to?
John Q. Public
Thu, 05/22/2014 - 10:56pm
Why does 2/3 of the column come after you said, "End of story!"?
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sat, 05/24/2014 - 10:31pm
Lou, It looks like you have taken on a big job for yourself, when you promote 4-year degrees. I think we may be able to help you. You mention here, and in your Alma Commencement Address, machines that are getting smarter and can do more of what people do. That was my first job in 1965. I helped set up and operate machines that replaced 200 workers. That job paid my way through Engineering School. I have been concerned with such things for a while. Our Defense Department, DARPA, has recognized a national priority. Who innovates and designs and produces the most sophisticated parts of our national defense systems? These people do not graduate from US colleges. So American schools do not provide the employees for such cutting edge markets. Why do you suppose that is? DARPA's priority is to re-establish this capability in America. They consider it to be 'a national resource.' A friend that is in Robotics, told me of a DARPA program to personally contact himself and 5000 other Robotics vendors to help them solve this 'national resource' problem. A report I just read, says that only 16.7% of four-year degrees in America are for STEM majors. In 2013 32% of the population have four-year degrees, so that is about 5.2% are in technical subjects. The conclusion could be that this elite 5% do not have what it takes to provide the level of technical innovation that DARPA is demanding. Is such information important to you and the students you influence? China is currently sending about 300,000 students a year to America to complete 4 year and higher programs. This number has been increasing at 28% per year. 90% of these people do not go home. If the US produces about 2.5 million degrees per year, just this one country, China could be providing a large percent of this 'human capital.' This information should of interest to you. I know one of these students. His father is the Export Minister for China. He does not lack for connections and influence in the world. These people are highly competitive to the students you influence. I understand Michigan Future has a goal for 35 Detroit high-schools, in an Accelerator program, to achieve an 85% college graduation rate for students in the program. This is about 17,500 high school students per year. The international competitiveness of the college graduates from your Accelerator program has to be a most vital portion of the effort. I don't think colleges have demonstrated this capability well, as far as DARPA is concerned and as far as I am concerned, and as far as American businesses are concerned. I wrote 10 standards for students in public education based on my experiences with international programs and a life long passion for helping others to learn things more effectively. I wrote a little course for each one, to teach a student how to apply the ideas of each standard to each thing they will study in their lives. At least three of the ideas from these standards are more important than 'Purpose.' But I think you already appreciate how valuable it is to motivate the students in your Accelerator program to attain its goals. My little courses help the student learn how to provide that motivation themselves. I require students to have a purpose for each thing they study. It helps to understand the concept of 'Basic Purpose.' How does a person find their basic purpose in life? Let's imagine that there is a single purpose an individual might have that relates to every single thing in life that is important to him. It is his passion. It is his reason for living. It has everything to do with his measure of personal success. Without it, he has no more value than a robot or computer program. If he does not know this certain purpose, he can still have a purpose for something, and that is more important than having no use for it. He can conceive for himself a use for each thing he learns, and that is very, very important. But if he then connects these purposes to his basic purpose then he can be most successful. If he does not, he will fail, often. He may feel things are not worthwhile. He may be a success in the eyes of others, but not feel successful while doing it, or for having done it. He will not be personally engaged. Knowing and using one's basic purpose makes a big difference. My basic purpose is to help others create. How do you get a student to connect what he is learning to what he will be doing? One method is Demonstration. You have the student use actual objects and have him show you how he can use it in life, or in specific situations that require his ability to apply. I am looking forward to hearing more about your work in Michigan.
Mon, 05/26/2014 - 3:12pm
Like your column. Having a college degree is good but what is more important is what you do with that degree, that knowledge, that will make you a success and a credit, not a burden to society. I don't care if your degree is from a small 4-year college or ivy league university. Its what you do with your life and how much you help others that counts. I know many people who have college degrees and don't know the first things about changing out a broken light switch or changing the oil in their cars. I would pay good money to find a skilled auto mechanic or handyman who may not have a college degree but is honest and can be depended on to the job right. College is not for everyone, thank goodness.
Wed, 06/25/2014 - 3:21pm
It is VERY much financial resources that affect the decision to attend, or not. At that point, it isnt a decision at all, you can, or you cant based on the available funds. I have been divorced/ a single mother for 13 years. People said I could get 'all kinds' of grants, and 'everything paid.' Well, because I cant afford gas to go to the nearest [community] college, I had to opt for online classes. To do this, I had to go in debt over 21,000 for a local online college, these loans are AFTER receiving the Pell Grant. The Pell grant (5500) is the ONLY thing I was eligible for, despite the fact I am a single, female, mother, with low income. My monthly bills are rock bottom, no credit cards, no car pmts, nothing. Do you really think after graduating, when I can get an entry level job after graduation, (to gain experience and work up), that I can afford to make that payment, and I will need a reliable vehicle at that time? I probably wont make much more than the child support I receive now, which covers basic-bare necessities. This week, I ran into a friend from high school, she and her son are attending community college, he had just graduated high school in the top of his class, with honors. He wanted to go to a University, but they cannot afford it. The community college doesnt come close to offering anything close to what his intellect should reward. I felt so sorry for them both! the community college is $3000 a semester, the University is $15,000 a semester. Some people, hard working people, simply cant afford the cost, no matter how hard they try, and work.