A College Degree is Always Valuable

Kevin Carey in The New Republic on “why the media is always wrong about the value of a college degree:”

Sally Cameron thought she had done everything right. After studying French and Arabic at a tony liberal arts college, she knew that graduate school would help her career chances. But when she hit the job market, her Ivy League management degree didn’t seem to matter. The worst recession in decades had pushed the unemployment rate to nearly 10 percent and good jobs were scarce. Sally paid the rent by tending bar and filled her time with volunteer work.

Meanwhile, experts and government officials warned that the days ahead would be grim. For decades, a growing number of students had streamed into higher education assuming that their degrees would lead to prosperity. Now people were openly questioning whether college was really worth it. As one George Washington University labor economist said, “A surfeit of any commodity—a BA or an MA—means that eventually it will stop paying off.”

Sally’s story sounds like the kind of depressing story filling the pages of newspapers and the popular press these days . . . There’s only one difference: Sally Cameron earned her master’s degree from Yale in 1980.

Carey goes on to say that these same stories run in every recession. The writers and editors who push them on us count on our short memories, otherwise we’d be on to them by now.

The truth is this: a college degree is always valuable, whether you graduate during a boom or a downturn. Your first job is always going to be a crummy one, but with a degree you’ve got the chance to move up. Without one, you’ll be stuck in crummy jobs the rest of your life. Even vocational training isn’t enough anymore, given the rapid pace of technological change. Any skill learned in a vocational school can, or will, be automated for less money. Then you’re back to the bottom again.

Only a college education prepares you to adapt to a rapidly changing job market. A couple of examples: I’m a musician, but I’ve also worked as a college instructor, a web designer, and a writer. My wife has a teaching degree, but has spent the last eleven years in account management. Neither of our paths would have been possible without a college education.

Plus a college degree shows a prospective employer that you are intelligent, motivated, and able to finish what you’ve started—qualities that can’t be gained “on the job.”

A professor of mine once compared a college degree to an admission ticket to an amusement park. Once you get in, it’s up to you where you go and what you do, but without the ticket you’ll be left outside. No one wants to be left outside.

So where’s Sally today?

She’s a senior manager at an international development consulting company that works under contract with USAID.

You think she still wonders if her college education was worth it?


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