At a time when both politicians and ordinary people are preoccupied with unemployment, colleges have to make extra sure they prove their worth to skeptical parents and students. How can higher learning--particularly in, say, philosophy or art history--guarantee a job? And will the job be worth the exorbitant sum required for tuition and books? Business writers have lately been bringing out their cost-benefit calculators to gauge the value of college curricula from the perspective of students, educators and the administration. Here's how they think you can make college "worth it."

  • You Can't, declares financial guru James Altucher at The Huffington Post. He crunches the numbers to explore whether college is, purely in terms of money, worth it for the "brilliant first half"--or 54%--of undergraduates who manage to "graduate within 6 years," according to government numbers." Although "over the course of a lifetime ... a college graduate can be expected to earn $800,000 more than his counterpart that didn't go to college," Altucher suggests that taking the $104,000 needed for four years of college and investing it in a savings account would wind up a far larger sum. He also points to college tuition growing at a rapid rate, far outpacing inflation. "So what should people do instead?" he asks. "One idea: start a business. You don't need to be an entrepreneur to get valuable experience selling a service, or buying some set of goods cheap and selling them expensive."
  • Of Course You Can--It's Already Worth It "What are the chances," asks Felix Salmon, latching onto Altucher's opening story of an implausible argument with his progeny, "that James Altucher won't send his daughters to college? Roughly zero, is my guess." The Reuters blogger admits that "college is largely wasted on those who don't graduate," but notes that "failure to graduate is highly correlated with being poor," and thus not something "middle-class" aspiring college students need worry about. Furthermore, financial calculations aside, "a college graduate is likely to be happier in their work (and life) than a non-graduate," while "only a small minority of people will ever have the necessary skillset to thrive in a business they founded." His conclusion: "The US has big problems with its colleges, and they need to be fixed. Let's not kid ourselves that avoiding going to college entirely is a remotely sensible or scalable solution."
  • Quit Philosophy In a story on the subject for The New York Times, Kate Zernke points to increased pressure on colleges to guarantee job-market success for their graduates. "Dropping a classics or philosophy major might have been unthinkable a generation ago, when knowledge of the great thinkers was a cornerstone of a solid education," she writes, "but with budgets tight, such programs have come to seem like a luxury--or maybe an expensive antique--in some quarters." With fans of the old-fashioned college education on defense, colleges are trying non-traditional approaches like relating The Great Gatsby to workplace problems and sending "career officers are heading into the classroom" to "[help] students understand the connection between a degree and a job."
  • Take More Internships  The Atlantic's Derek Thompson, responding to Zernke's piece, admits he finds it "a little weird" that "we expect our colleges to be intellectual playgrounds and professional factories." But he's got a suggestion or two to resolve the apparent conflict: "First [colleges] should expand their acceptance of accredited internships or provide more financial compensation to unpaid internships ... Second colleges should make it easier [for] students to streamline the graduation process." The first would help get "students a leg up in the post-grad world," while the second--he proposes "allow[ing] something like a super-major where ... [an] extra level of specialization would allow [a student] ... to graduate one semeseter early"--could allow for more in-depth study of a subject.