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'The Best Investment of Your Life'

President Morton Schapiro makes strong case for the value of college

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July 26, 2012 | by Storer H. Rowley

CHICAGO, Ill. --- Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro appeared this week on two of Chicago's premier public broadcast outlets and made a strong case that a college education remains the best investment America's students can make in their lives.

President Schapiro, who is also a professor of economics and has written extensively on the economics of higher education, appeared on successive days (July 24 and 25) for extended interviews on WTTW-Channel 11's "Chicago Tonight" with host Phil Ponce and on WBEZ-91.5 FM radio's "Afternoon Shift" with host Steve Edwards.

The appearances were prompted by a recent opinion piece co-authored by Schapiro and Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, that appeared in The Los Angeles Times on July 3. In the piece, the two presidents spoke out against alarmist critics who say traditional higher education is doomed because of high tuition costs, burdensome student debt and competition from for-profit colleges and on-line programs.

"The vast majority of students graduate with small debt burdens -- about $25,000 on average -- and about one-third leave college with no debt at all," the presidents wrote. "Meanwhile, the college premium -- the ratio of college earnings to high school earnings -- is at or near record levels and has been increasing decade after decade since the late 1970s."

On WTTW's "Chicago Tonight" July 24, Schapiro declared, "My biggest worry is that people are going to be scared out of capital markets and not make an investment that would be the best financial investment of their lives: To take out debt and go to college."  

The rate of return on the investment in a college degree "is much higher now," he added, than it was years ago.

Addressing the concern about higher costs for that degree, he acknowledged, "It's expensive to provide the kind of education that we do." The the percentage of students who actually pay the highest tuition costs is relatively small, he said.

"The country has 17.6 million undergraduates. And the focus on the very few schools--of the 3,300 not-for profits, only 99 actually charge $50,000 or above," he said. "But only about 250,000 of 17.6 millions students actually pay, or their parents pay, $50,000 or above. It's fewer than 2 percent. And I think those 2 percent get a very good deal.”

On WBEZ's "Afternoon Shift" July 25, Schapiro debated the value of a liberal arts education with Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, and both guests took call-in questions from the Chicago Public Radio audience. 

Schapiro noted that schools such as Northwestern University are experiencing record numbers of applicants. "It's not a perfect answer for everyone," he added, "but it's an excellent economic decision for a lot of people."