Total student loan debt has soared to about $1 trillion nationwide and increasingly the question of attending college is being framed in terms someone with an MBA would use:
Is the rate of return on a college education worth it?
"Right now, no," said Bianca Calderon, 23, a Fortuna native who graduated from Sonoma State University last week with a degree in criminal justice.
"I'm looking for a job and it's really, really hard. Especially in my field," said Calderon, who is her family's first college graduate and now owes about $20,000 in student loans.
She considered dropping out during her junior year because of the growing debt, but decided she was already too far along to quit, and also that she couldn't disappoint her family and professors. Now, she said, she's considering getting a master's in public administration to improve her job prospects.
For years, research has shown a direct link between education and income: the more education you have, the more money you make.
But the value of a college education is being questioned by, among others, President Ronald Reagan's education secretary, William Bennett, who thrust the issue into the national debate last month in his new book, titled "Is College Worth It?"
His answer: Not every college and not for everyone.
That's true especially, Bennett says, given the debt graduates can leave with — an average of $25,250 nationally — and the large number of American students who do not finish college.
"The return on investment is positive, we think, for about 150 colleges and universities, but there are about 3,000 colleges and universities," Bennett said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance.
'Not worth it'
Annie Nagel of Rohnert Park is working toward a veterinary technician's certificate at Santa Rosa Junior College, often used as a stepping stone to a four-year college. She also is studying anthropology, which Bennett says is an example of a major that leaves graduates without a clear path to a career.
Tuition hikes and budget cuts have led to crowded classes and made it at times impossible to get into classes she needs to graduate. So the 21-year-old has concluded: "College is not worth it."
She doubts she will go to a four-year college, unless it specializes in canine studies, said Nagel, who works part time at a Santa Rosa dog kennel.
"I love learning and I think education is great, but I think the education system is not very great," she said. "It's worth it to me because my parents pay for it. If I had to pay for it, it wouldn't be."
She and her brother, who earned a business degree from Chapman University, had little choice about whether to go.
"It wasn't an option not to go to college. It was made very clear from the day they were born that they were both going," said their mother, Molly Nagel, a special education teacher for Petaluma City Schools.
"College is the best investment anyone can make," Molly Nagel said, "in your mind and your job opportunities and in the functioning of the world."
Not always best path
But it may not always be the best path, according to a May report by the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank.
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