The diminishing returns of a college degree
And yet, you should still get one.
He was talking about eugenics, but the quote got me to thinking about the college education and its recent role as a punching bag in the blogosphere and press. If everyone in America got a bachelor's degree, college grads would have to take out the garbage, scrub floors, and wash dishes. You can't outsource your janitorial staff to India.
How close are we to that? "Is a college degree worth the cost?" is a question that returns every time the fall semester starts. But this time around, the skepticism has gotten especially strong. A survey found that only 64% of Americans think a college education is a good investment, down from 80% in 2009. That's laughably low.
Meanwhile, the stats on how college grads are doing vs. high school grads and dropouts seem crystal clear.
In August, the unemployment rate for people with a B.A. and higher was 4.6% -- almost six points lower than that of high school grads and 10 points lower than that of dropouts. The median income of people with bachelor's degrees is 75% higher than that of high school graduates, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Professor Richard Florida recently found a strong correlation between educational attainment and happiness. (Not necessarily causation, but still something to think about.)
How do you walk away from those facts still thinking that maybe a college degree isn't worth it?
But the cost is so high
Many commenters have pointed to the ever-steepening cost of college. In the last decade, it has risen at about 5% per year, much faster than in the previous two decades.
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Then your typical commenter writes something about opportunity cost ("He could be a plumber making $60k!"), compound interest ("Invest that $100k for college in a low-cost mutual fund and you'll be a millionaire by 40!"), and anecdotes about M.A. grads working in Starbucks, and voila! Suddenly, college looks like a poor deal.
But is it really as bad as it seems? The College Board reports that, on average, students pay only 67% of that sticker price. In some Ivy League schools (plus Stanford), parents who make under a reasonably high salary don't have to pay anything.
Is the cost increasing? Yes. But the best schools are increasingly competing for the best students (in part, because they become the most generous alumni). That will hopefully continue to have a dampening effect on actual costs and might trickle down to lower-tier schools.
But the jobs of the future need technical skills, not a broad-based curriculum, you might say.
Periodically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tries to estimate what will be the most in-demand jobs in the future. Of the 10 jobs it thinks will grow the fastest through 2018, only two require a bachelor's degree or above (accountants and college professors). Most (like customer-service reps and food preparers) need only on-the-job training.
A great example of this is nursing. You don't need a B.S. to be a nurse. In some cases, you can get by with an associate degree or three-year vocational program, which will include the areas of biology specifically relevant to your future job.
Let's put aside the issue of whether you want any of those fastest-growing jobs. How accurate do those jobs-of-the-future estimates actually end up being? It depends on your definition of "accurate." In a look back at their 1988-to-2000 employment projections, BLS economists found that they were way too optimistic about some professions and not optimistic enough about others.
The number of human service assistants grew at a rate triple what they predicted. Meanwhile, computer technicians didn't add nearly as many jobs as thought. They were right that we'd have more computers, but improving technology meant they broke down less frequently.
But even more than that, you can't predict job growth for a job that doesn't exist yet. How many PR social network specialists would the BLS have predicted in 1995, before mainstream social networks existed?
What a broad-based college degree gets you is flexibility. Go to a plumbing school, and you'll come out a plumber. You'll be a great fit for plumbing positions. But if that field ever suffers or you find you don't enjoy the work, it will be much harder to change professions than if you graduated with a B.A. in history.
Right now, only about 30% of Americans have a bachelor's degree. So let's not get ahead of ourselves. But in a world where everyone has a B.A., a college diploma becomes even more essential, not something you can just skip altogether.
Correlation is not causation. I theorize that degreed individuals succeed more due their drive as to their education. My B.S. (paid for with an academic scholarship) turned out to be worthless in the marketplace.
Taxpayer 1 said, I'm curious what morons [emphasis added]with degrees in art history, philosophy, African studies, Women studies, American studies, "fill in the blank" ethnic studies, dance, music appreciation, religion, humanities, and fine arts plan to do with their "education"?
There's real confusion here with voc-tec and with a liberal arts education. One doesn't now - nor did it ever - give you the other. Unless your lawyer or doctor has a liberal arts undergraduate degree, all they've got is a load of voc-tech training. (Sure, they may have picked up a liberal arts education on their own time, but that's not what this discussion is about.)
To the point: My B.A. is in Philosophy, with a minor in Political Theory. I ran wild for 15 years after college, then began at $0 and retired at 61; no mortgage, no debt, no trust fund, positive cash flow.
The liberal arts degree: It's not just for morons.
My brother and I have liberal arts BA's from the 1970's. He's a janitor and I gave up trying to make a living years ago and became a housewife. All I could find were minimum wage jobs. Don't say we should've gone to grad school - we both graduated at the bottom of our class. Unless your kid is smart enough to be a yuppie, don't waste your $$.
Hmmm...would you like to apply for a position knowing that all of your competition has a 4 year degree and you've been Chief Fry Cook for 2 years?
A college degree from a reasonably priced public college is priceless. Let's check the bio on the "go negative" author.
college is simply another investment. invest wisely. get a history degree? well THAT was a stupid investment! technical degree? engineering or biology? that's much more useful.
with high schools becoming so poor in quality, a college degree validates your high school diploma. even an associate degree. it lifts you out of the crowd of simply high school grads. meanwhile, with so many funky college degrees, ie "communications", a masters degree will validate your college degree.
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