Questioning the value of a college degree

The obsession with getting a college degree may finally be getting a reality check (“College Still Pays Off, but Not for Everyone,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 9).  According to a TD Ameritrade study, 49 percent of young people said their degree was “very or somewhat unimportant” to their current job.

I wonder if even more will say so in the years ahead as it becomes evident that what is taught in college has little relevance to what is needed in the workplace.According to a paper released by the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances, “the college wealth premium weakens to the point of insignificance with the single exception of white bachelor’s-degree holders, which remains positive but much smaller than that enjoyed by previous cohorts.”

I’ve long believed that far too many students are not college material and would be far better served by a vocational education beginning in high school and continuing in community college.  With average student debt now at $37,000, I think more high school students will rethink whether a four-year degree is worth the price.

The truth is that college is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.  It is not an absolute determinant.  Yet we persist in the fiction that the future is bleak for all those who do not have a sheepskin.

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5 Replies to “Questioning the value of a college degree”

  1. There are several reasons that students go to college — to acquire skills needed for employment, to acquire credentials needed to get into professional/grad school (which, indirectly, is for employment), to gain social experiences/maturity inherent in the transition from teenager dependent on parents to independent adult, and to party-on for a few years before settling down to “real” life.

    Agree that many students who currently plan to attend or are attending college would be better off financially pursuing job-training rather than college. But, that speaks only to the “acquire skills needed for employment” reason that students go to college.

    For students who are attending college to punch the ticket towards professional/grad school, college is probably the only option.

    Virtually all students who attend college do so, at least in part, for the “gain social experiences/maturity” and/or “party-on for a few years” reasons. Apprenticeship/job-training programs, at least as they currently exist, do not serve these objectives.

    In other words, many/most potential college students and current college students give relatively little weight to long-term $ prospects when they decide to attend college rather than going an apprenticeship/job-training route. Even if these folks consciously knew they would make as much or more $/year going the latter route, they would still opt for the college route for the gain-social-experiences/maturity and party-on reasons. Of course, these students are not spending their own $ when they decide to go the college route — they are spending either their parents’ $ or the bank’s $. And, human nature teaches that we all pretty much over-discount future pain when deciding whether to pursue immediate happiness at the expense of future pain.

    Seems like US society would benefit from some kind of national-service requirement applied to all 18-yr-olds — military service or some other kind of public service for, say, two years during which the young men/women lived away from home, socialized with many other young people, had to do a fair amount of work but also had a lot of free time, and had opportunities for drinking, sex, and other college-like social/semi-adult experiences. Then, they could go on to college or opt for the apprenticeship/job-training route. My guess is that many of those who would have opted for college immediately after high school but who would have been better off financially going the apprenticeship/job-training route would now opt for the latter route.


  2. Labor Lawyer: During the great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps provided an opportunity for young men to earn much needed salaries while building dams, post offices and other public works. I think a version of the CCC would attract many other young people who are not certain about their future goals.


    1. A problem with a voluntary CCC-type approach is that many parents would view it as an admission that their children were not “college” material and would therefore strongly oppose their kids going the CCC route. If so, this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the overwhelming majority of kids enrolling in the CCC program were the very poor, the very weak students, the juvenile delinquents, and the general screw-ups. That’s why I prefer a mandatory public-service program that would enroll pretty much everyone, albeit with different options within the program.


  3. Labor Lawyer: If the CCC was promoted as an elite corps the same way that the Peace Corps was during the Kennedy administration, then parents and young people might see it in a different light. The Peace Corps attracted some of the best and brightest young people at the time.


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