The Value of a College Education
My two older brothers are polar opposites. One is a fiscal conservative with a large house and property; the other squats in our deceased mom's co-op to save on rent. One is a salaried IT executive; the other is a paralegal. One is action-oriented; the other is philosophical and passive -- he prefers to hide from creditors, in fact, and refuses to work overtime to make additional cash. One is college-educated; one is not. Can you guess which is which?
What is the point of having advanced education if you do nothing with it?
More than twenty million students will be returning to school this fall, presumably so they can start their adult lives with a solid foundation. According to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, a majority of these students have chosen to enroll in public schools instead of private. In fact, more and more have chosen public over private each year since 2005. The trend also points to additional enrollment in two-year programs, which makes sense, considering how expensive the four-year endeavor has become.
However, do a simple job search, and in all areas of the country a bachelor's degree is required no matter how menial the job, how low-paying the office position, and how unlikely one is to climb the corporate ladder. I'm always hesitant to apply, even if I could be the perfect match. After all, how do I get past the e-mail filters when I do not possess a degree? Should I mention my high IQ? That I made it into the Jeopardy! contestant pool on my second attempt? How about that I'm a Top 10 Bookworm Player, which makes a cool calling card, being among the nation's best in a sea of thousands of players who compete for petty cash?
Here is one listing: "Editors needed to work with digital content to make edits and adjustments using tools such as HTML, XML, and CSS. A Bachelor's Degree in English, Journalism, or Library Science and meticulous proofreading skills are necessary for this type of role."
No one who studies English or journalism in college ever learns this skill set. Most journalism students are lucky to learn anything practical at all. The weekly reporters I worked with, some with advanced degrees, were basically taught theory and ideals. They didn't figure out how to really get the story until they were on the job for six months. By then, I was already an editor.
My question: in 2012, who purposely seeks out a four-year degree to earn ten dollars an hour, or perhaps twelve if the stars are aligned? Can anyone do the math? The average amount of tuition ranges from $4,500 to $12,000 per year for in-state students, according to the College Board. Triple that amount if you attend a private university.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers has $43,000 as the median starting salary for recent college graduates, and even less for anyone in the visual arts. How long does it take just to pay off the principal? I imagine a million years, or perhaps less if someone else is fronting room and board.
More than half of all college students will also switch their major at some point, a costly decision if the wrong turn is taken. Unless you plan on becoming a professor or need street cred for writing textbooks, having a history degree is not exactly the road to financial success. Ask my brother, the paralegal, who pushes papers and calls cranky clients for address information.
I will never knock anyone who goes to college and learns, as it can be an incredibly valuable and rewarding experience for many. I am not bitter or envious of degree-holders -- just baffled at the expectations from employers and what students hope to accomplish when they choose certain majors. No one needs a bachelor's degree in English in order to change style sheets for webpages. Teenagers can learn this skill set on their own, in their spare time.
In my life, I've accomplished much without a degree, from managing several newspapers to writing a successful bank proposal that secured capital for a medical exporter. I've been working since I was 14 years old, when I started in an office environment to help a relative. It was supposed to be a summer job, but I wound up staying with the office through high school. It gave me the ability to self-study graphic arts software and learn other skills, in addition to saving money for a new computer.
By the time I was college-aged and supposed to be "finding myself," I didn't want to pursue a degree; I wanted to work. Instead of searching through course catalogs, I found a better-paying position with a large insurance company. At that time, the early 1990s, no one demanded that I have a degree or even wondered how young I was. (I'm guessing because it was illegal to ask.) Someone in Human Resources put me in a temp spot, and before long, I had a permanent job followed by a promotion. It took me a while, and working for a few small businesses, before I finally found my true calling, newspapers, but by the time I became a weekly reporter, I already had ten years' office experience, at just 24 years old.
This would be impossible today. Somewhere in the last dozen years, college degrees became mandatory for even the simplest of secretarial jobs, despite the astronomical rise in tuition costs in the same time period, which of course was married to the housing market -- a nice conspiracy theory if there ever was one.
Many professions absolutely should require advanced education. Few patients would rush to see a self-taught doctor, for example. For other fields, the rate of return for a four-year degree is next to ridiculous. Customer service, managing, "content creation," and certainly anything clerical do not warrant sixty credits of useless humanities and film classes to round out the knowledge base. Liberal arts do not teach anyone instinct or inspiration, or how to answer a phone with a clear speaking voice, or how to solve a problem. A "well-rounded" education also does not guarantee grammar skills or coherent ideas -- ask any hiring manager plowing through the hundreds of daily applicants.
Here's a symbolic conclusion: there is a husband/wife team in my area, each with a handy master's in marketing, who upon graduating decided to open a dog-walking company. They have cute copy on the website (walks with other dogs are not walks, but "buddy bonding" or whatever). Perhaps they even branded themselves. What a waste of money and time, in my opinion. Their competitors, dog-walkers who never went to college, clear as much or more in annual salary. Why? It's picking up poop and garnering a good reputation among clients to obtain referrals. Not something one has to spend six years to realize, shelling out six figures in the process.