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Is College Worth It? {Book Review}

Disclosure: This could be a sponsored post or contain affiliate links (which means I earn a percentage of the sale), but all opinions are strictly my own.

I have always, always loved reading, but there are few books that stay in my mind as much as this one did.  I actually received it in and finished it literally in one sitting about a month ago, but I’ve given some time for me to sort through the thoughts in my head before attempting to write a clear, concise review.  There were a number of nights that I would be awake in bed, thinking of this book and my response to it, and my husband (who read it over the course of the next week after I begged him to so I could bounce my ideas off of someone!) and I have had quite a few discussions about some of the topics in this book over the past few weeks.

Is College Worth It? was written by former United States Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Liberal Arts graduate David Wilezol, and each author provides an educated perspective with strong points and valid arguments.  “[They] assess the problems of American higher education at various levels, from runaway costs to inferior academics to poor graduation rates to political indoctrination, and propose serious reforms and alternative methods for improving higher education so that it better serves our students.”


One of the first points that caught my attention was the financial aid situation that seems to be spiraling out of control.  I was shocked to learn that the student loan “bubble” is just waiting to burst, quite like the housing market did several years ago.  The difference between the two, according to Is College Worth It?, is that the amount of money that has been borrowed through student loans is more than double the amount that was sitting in the housing market.  I remember being surprised when I was attending college to see how much money was available from financial aid each term, and I was even more surprised when I would overhear classmates talk about taking classes during the summer or adding “fluff” classes to get to full-time status so they could qualify and use every penny available to them through these loans.  I know many who have easily tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and are struggling to make those payments, even if they are lucky enough to have a full-time job.

On top of that, some didn’t graduate and are in an even more precarious situation since they don’t have a degree to make them eligible for higher-paying jobs.  Bennett and Wilezol discuss how many students are expected to go to college or how parents assume that just having their kids go straight to a four-year university will lead to a degree and career.  This, though, is not always the case — many students are not ready for college or don’t have the desire or the drive necessary to succeed in this new environment.  These students might have better success in a community college or in a technical school that would allow them different opportunities with smaller class sizes, a variety of formats for learning (online, hybrid, more/less class meetings each week, etc.), and more practical degree plans that would be suited to their interests.  I’ve taught English, Reading, and Early Childhood Education for the past six years at both community colleges and universities, and I agree wholeheartedly with Bennett and Wilezol that students who are underprepared for or are uninterested in college should reconsider how they are using their time and money at that stage in their lives.

The other part of this book that stuck in my head was how the option of joining the military to pay for college was hardly given the time or “room” in the book that I certainly believe it deserves.  Only one or two paragraphs are written about West Point or the Naval Academy — both of which are highly rated academically, require no monetary cost for tuition from the student, and result in becoming a commissioned officer in the armed forces.  I can’t recall any mention in this book of the ROTC programs available at most universities throughout the nation that also provide tuition, a stipend, and a career.  There’s a passing mention of the GI Bill available to those who enlist, and there is no mention of 100% tuition assistance available while enlisted servicemembers are on active duty.

  In fact, one of the fictional “case study” examples in the last chapter of this book gives a scenario where a young man graduated from high school, had been working as a roofer for about a year, still lived with his parents, and used his free time to smoke pot and play video games with his friends from high school.  The authors’ suggestion for this scenario?  Join the military.

SAY WHAT???!!   

The authors explained that this fictional example character was used to hard work outdoors with long hours and manual labor, which would prepare him for the military.  They then briefly mentioned that the GI Bill would be available if he decided he wanted to go to college later.  And they jokingly said something about him needing to stop smoking pot.

I was absolutely shocked.

Let me give you a better scenario.

A young man just barely graduates from high school and doesn’t have the grades or really even the drive to go to college.  However, he spent two years as a cross-age tutor in an elementary school with a fabulous teacher who inspired him to become a teacher himself.  He’s a good kid — doesn’t drink, smoke, or use illegal drugs; is active and plays varsity sports; and even attends church regularly — but he knows that college is not really an option for him at that point.  When the Marine Corps recruiter calls him and offers an opportunity to serve his country, work at a full-time job, and later attend college, he enlists and prepares to go to boot camp.  His boot camp report date?  September 24, 2001 – not even two weeks after the 9/11 attacks.

He becomes a Marine and serves his country for four years.  During that time, he enrolls in the university on the base and is able to take 45 credits of college coursework at no cost to him, thanks to the Tuition Assistance program, and he maintains a 3.6 GPA.  He decides not to re-enlist, but to attend college full-time to fulfill his goal of becoming a teacher.  His GPA and the 45 college credits allows him to enter a four-year university as a transfer student, making the application process much less stressful since his high school grades are not even considered.  He uses the GI Bill for two years, which provides him a stipend each month to pay for tuition, books, housing, groceries, whatever.  He also works at the nearby school district as a Physical Education Assistant, a job for which he was qualified because of volunteer hours during high school combined with his experiences in the Marine Corps.

Right before finishing his degree, this young man is recalled into active duty service.  After lots of late-night thinking and prayer, he feels that he should instead re-enlist with the Marine Corps, and he is able to complete his degree just months after returning to active duty.  This degree allows him the opportunity to now become an officer in the Marine Corps and continue to make the military a successful career.  He’s set back a little when he learns that he can’t choose the job he holds in the Marine Corps as an officer; he’s not sure that he wants to give up his option to select a job, but his degree is still highly regarded when he goes before the board for promotions, which come quickly.  He later learns that he can be an Air Traffic Controller in the Marine Corps as an enlisted servicemember, and he jumps on that opportunity.  He currently has his TRACON rating, meaning that he can work any position in a radar facility and can continue serving as a military member or can instead work for the FAA — again, all at no cost to him, thanks to the training provided by the Marine Corps.

Have you figured out yet that this young man is my husband?  🙂

Here’s my bottom line:

In the conversation about students preparing for college, attending college, and paying for college, I don’t believe that the opportunities provided by military service should be so fleetingly brushed aside, as I felt they were in this book.  I don’t think that enlisting in the military should be portrayed as a last-ditch effort to make something of one’s self, and it certainly should not be touted as an option to those who use (and could be addicted to) illegal drugs — a dishonorable discharge from military service would certainly eliminate future job opportunities.

And, in the conversation about students not needing to attend college and rack up huge amounts of student loans in order to be successfully employed in fulfilling careers, the military also provides specialized training in some fields that translate directly into successful civilian careers.  Some require specific skill sets, and not all jobs in the military are working outside or doing manual labor.  I know of a number of former military members who gained on-the-job training and experience in meteorology, air traffic controlling, and firefighting while serving their country and are now gainfully employed in civilian careers, some with lucrative salaries.

I also believe that there are amazing opportunities for those who choose to go to college first and then join the military using any number of programs that will pay for education/training in exchange for a number of years of active duty service.  We have friends who are trained F-15 and C-130 pilots, and others who are nurses, PAs, and doctors — all who had their college education paid for while being provided a stipend, resulting in little to no student loans and a full-time job with benefits.

If you’re looking for a book that will provide an interesting perspective on college education and its role in shaping America financially, economically, and intellectually, I would highly recommend this book.  I’ve obviously focused on the military in my review, but my own choice to live at home after high school to work and take classes at the local university to save money rather than go off to an Ivy League school (or any school) felt validated when I read this book.  My experiences as a college instructor also are aligned with those of the authors’ in terms of allowing students to go to college when and if that desire arises.  As a mom who wants only the best for her boys, I definitely came to a screeching halt and had a bit of an anxiety attack when I considered that attending a four-year university (or any college at all!) may not be the best choice for my young men when they get to that point — I have a Master’s degree and my husband has a Bachelor’s degree plus 15 credits of graduate coursework, so we just assume that our kids will all go to college to earn at least their Bachelor’s degrees — but I can see how college may not be the option that is most suitable for all students.  Is College Worth It?, though, provides an objective view of how college can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on a number of factors.

**I was provided this book to review by Booksneeze, but all opinions are strictly my own.

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