Is an American university degree worth the cost?

  • Published
  • comments
Media caption,

American university fees are soaring, but is it worth it?

Nowhere in the world does it cost as much to go to university as it does in the US. Some private universities here cost more than $50,000 (£38,000) per year just for tuition, and that doesn't cover accommodation, food, or even books (remember those?).

I wanted to find whether an American degree is worth it. What do those exorbitant fees actually buy you?

Right near the BBC bureau in Washington, DC, is one of the more expensive universities in the country - George Washington University. Under its former President Stephen Trachtenberg, prices at GW, as it's known here, have more than doubled over the course of the past few decades.

Trachtenberg invested in fancy dormitories, upmarket sports facilities and state-of-the-art classrooms in a deliberate strategy to make the school more appealing. It worked: the more he spent, the more fees rose and the more students wanted to go there.

He has no regrets about the massive inflation in tuition costs because it all leads to better jobs. If a student can find work after graduation, "then presumably the university," he says, "has served the purpose they wanted, society wanted, and if they can pay the debt back, it's not a problem."

But if you don't come from a wealthy family, those debts can be enormous. The high cost of fees creates a clear division between haves and have-nots among the student body - indeed in the country as a whole.

I sat down for coffee at a local spot with three GW students. Each is working at least one part-time job to pay their college bills, and each is taking on some level of debt.

Cindy Zhang is studying international affairs, and she works two part-time jobs to make ends meet. Her parents help out a bit, but she also has about $10,000 in loans per year.

Shanil Jiwani currently has $60,000 in loans and he expects that number to double by the time he graduates - he'll be $120,000 in debt before he steps out into the world.

Silvia Zenteno's university days are almost over. But even with the maximum amount of financial aid from the university, she still works 30 hours a week, and plans to graduate with $40,000 in loans.

So why do it? Why put all that time, money and effort in? Maybe students here don't have much choice.

"When you're talking about your career and how much money you're going to make, your college investment is basically your down payment," Anthony Carnevale told me. He's the director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. And because Americans don't have a social safety net to fall back on, like many European countries, Carnevale says, US degrees are "more valuable than degrees in other countries."

So you pay a lot of money to get a degree from a good school, to get a good job, to pay back the loans of going to a good school. It's a vicious cycle of inflation that shows no signs of stopping. GW has just published its tuition fees for the upcoming school year: $50,367, up 3.4% from last year.

What might just put a cap on the rising costs is that wonderfully egalitarian institution - the internet. More US universities are offering online courses virtually for free.

You don't get the swanky campus facilities and face-to-face interaction, but you do get a good education. And if costs keep rising at the speed they have been, at some point more American students will say that looks like a pretty good deal.

For more on the BBC's A Richer World, go to - or join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #BBCRicherWorld