What Good is a College Degree?

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, September 26, 2007.

Along with the crisp air comes another sign of fall – throngs of students going to college. Excitement for them, anxiety for their parents.

But as we pack our students off to college, we must ask an important question:

What good is a college degree?

First, there’s the question of what a college education ought to mean, and what it really is.  College used to be a privilege, but our egalitarian society now believes everyone deserves the opportunity to attend. Thus, our government argues about college loans, and wise parents have investigated ways to set aside the money.

In February 2005, USA Today reported that 64% of high school graduates go to college, but the number of Americans with bachelor degrees is only 29%. So what happens to that other 35% between the time they go and 4 years later?

Many students simply aren’t equipped to attend. They can’t foot the bill, or don’t have the academic skills. For many, their personal habits interfere with their success. Besides money, college demands maturity and self-discipline. If you don’t have those, college can chew you up.

Secondly, there’s the question of whether we need college degrees – as individuals or a society. America has the largest economy in the world, but less than a third of us have a degree. Yeah, we need educated folk running the country, but we rely just as much on those who ask, “Do you want fries with that?”

Finally, some choose to educate themselves in their pursuit of rewarding jobs and a comfortable life. In Washington State, the average salary for teaching, which requires at least a bachelor’s degree, is $45,722. The starting salary for a power lineman (those good guys who climb power poles to keep our electricity coming) is $55,000. No college degree necessary, though some training (and risk) is required. That salary increases to $72,000 for journeymen.

I recently met a man with a Ph.D. in physics. There’s an accomplishment, wouldn’t you say? A degree in upper level sciences — surely we need more like him! Actually, no, we don’t. After the linear accelerator program died in the 1980s, the market for his skills dried up, and he retrained as a brain surgeon. Because he needed a job.

Sadly, a college degree no longer guarantees a good job. It may not guarantee any job at all. If you plan to get a degree in the arts or humanities (music, foreign language, history, literature), good luck. We could stop issuing degrees in English for 20 years and still have more than enough English majors to go around. (But Newsweek recently reported that medical schools are now looking for those with liberal arts degrees. Maybe there’s hope for us English majors yet!)

So – what good IS a college degree? If you want to be a lawyer, teacher or businessman, it’s mandatory. Not just one degree, but many. There’s also evidence that college graduates have a better quality of life – they’re healthier, happier, more likely to volunteer and vote. But if you’re looking to live comfortably with work you find rewarding (be it butcher, baker, or candlestick maker), you might not need one.

More than ever, today’s students must do their homework.

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