This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.

(This is Part I in a series about challenging traditional measures of financial success. Part II is Challenging traditional measures of financial success: Homeownership. Part III is The 9-to-5 job: Challenging how we earn a living.)

Not going to college was never really an option for me. “Don’t even joke about that,” my mom once said when I brought up the idea as a teenager.

My parents never went to college and believed they suffered financially because of it. Statistically, they may be right. According to the data, a bachelor’s degree can help you earn significantly more than a high school diploma.

My parents were always clear about what my job was, as a student: I was expected to pave a path that led to getting into a good college, finding some scholarships, and earning a diploma.

For years, college has been sold as the key to a better, more prosperous future. That’s not to say you’re doomed if you don’t have a degree. It’s just to say — I can see where my parents were coming from. And I can see why so many people aspire to go to college.

But recently, the value of higher education has come into question. In the documentary “Ivory Tower,” filmmaker Andrew Rossi addresses the many facets of this issue.

The student loan crisis

You’re probably aware that student loan debt, nationally, has reached the trillion-dollar mark.

That number is beyond high, but, at the same time, many more people are going to college. So let’s try a different number: $33,000 is the average debt of graduates in 2014. When adjusted for inflation, this number is up by more than $10,000 since 2005, the year I graduated (which makes my own student debt story small potatoes). Overall, the percentage of students taking out loans has increased too.

We don’t even need to revisit these numbers to know that student loan debt has become a huge burden for many. This issue is the premise of “Ivory Tower.” In the film, the student loan debt crisis is compared to the housing crisis. It’s a valid comparison, but the film points out a big difference between student loan debt and mortgage debt: Student loans, typically, are not dischargeable in bankruptcy. You can’t foreclose on your college education. In all but a few circumstances, you are stuck with it for life.

Traditionally, college has been part of the path to financial success. But in the face of these staggering statistics, we’re actually starting to reconsider whether a formal education is still a good investment. People naturally ask whether getting a degree is even worth it. “Why pay money if I can make money?” is a question brought up in the documentary. Meaning, why go to college and end up in the hole when you can just get a job and start earning?

In her own report of the documentary, Nona Willis Aronowitz, who writes about education and income inequality for NBC News, calls the crisis “the endangerment of a useful, worthwhile college degree in an era of job scarcity and rampant inequality.”

The knee-jerk reaction, and one that I’ve witnessed, is to say: Well, if college is expensive, don’t goDon’t get a degree. Don’t pay for something you can’t afford. But, statistically, Aronowitz is right — a college education is useful. When it comes to earning more, the stats say a degree is still worthwhile. And if the data means anything, ruling out education altogether doesn’t do much to remedy income inequality, as “Ivory Tower” points out.

Why college is changing

The year after I graduated, the tuition at my alma mater nearly doubled. Why has it become so expensive? Is college changing?

Less funding

Ivory Tower” offers a brief history lesson about the Morrill Act of 1862. It established the government’s role in promoting higher learning. It created land-grant colleges. States received a certain amount of federal land to be used to establish and fund educational institutions. The idea was that education should be accessible across social classes.

Over the years, funding for higher education has decreased. And, of course, there are strong, valid, opposing political opinions on this. But politics aside, there really is no denying that less funding has had an impact on colleges and their students.

More competition

In an interview with PBS, Rossi explains how college institutions have become less education-focused and more business-minded:

“… 1100 percent tuition has risen since 1978. And that is also the result of a decrease in state funding, 40 percent in that same period less in state funds for public colleges.

“But what we’re really looking at is a business model in higher education that encourages a growth to become bigger and better, which allows universities to attract student loan dollars and is creating perverse incentives in the classroom, in addition to this terrible student debt crisis.”

In other words, as one educator in the documentary puts it, “It’s an arms race in higher education.” Colleges are focused on recruiting students by offering more programs, more facilities, more prestige. 

And these things cost money. The film points to a previously tuition-free college that took out a $175 million loan in order to, essentially, keep up with the Joneses. Better facilities, programs and prestige allow schools to raise their tuition rates — which leads to large student loan debts, which leads us to question the value of college overall.

Does it still pay to go to college?

Again, it seems the instinctive answer might be: Don’t buy something you can’t afford. But an education is an investment in oneself, and a degree is an investment in your earning potential.

The data shows a degree still pays. According to the New York Times, Millennial grads who work full time earn about $17,500 more than their counterparts with a high school diploma alone. They are also more likely to be employed. A recent Pew Research report had similar findings.

But, of course, a salaried, full-time job is far from guaranteed. And, of course, there are people who put the statistics to shame, going on to become massively successful without a bachelor’s degree. But that may be a case of the proverbial exception and not the rule.

“Ivory Tower,” and Rossi himself, also address the philosophical value of a college education. I won’t get into it too much here, but I agree that there is value in going to college beyond the discussion of pay grade. But how can the value of education beyond pay grade be compared in real terms to the debt load students are undertaking? In short, does it still pay to go to college?

Changing the way we think about college

For now, questions seem to outnumber answers. In this series where we challenge the typical path that is supposed to lead to and measure financial success, college has long held an unassailable position as part of the equation. But it seems equally undeniable now that it’s a position we need to reevaluate.

The whole issue is going to need a larger solution. But on an individual level, Rossi suggests students and parents consider a few important things when picking a school. Instead of a school’s social ranking, we should look at:

  • Completion rates

  • Average student loan debt

  • Employment statistics

It seems that, as colleges become more like businesses, we have to reevaluate their worth along a similar vein. We don’t want to just pay for the “brand name” or the prestige. Formal education and consumerism seem to be overlapping more than ever. Education is still massively important. But now it seems we have to sift the marketing out of it, consider the rising costs more carefully, and make a decision that is truly based on investing in our future.

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