College Degree Premium: Why Higher Ed is Overvalued

More and more Americans are going to college, but that doesn’t mean they’re learning valuable skills or improving the economy.

Is there really such a thing as a "college premium," the increase in earnings over a lifetime that one can expect to get with a college degree?

A recent report, “The College Payoff, examines the data and not surprisingly answers the question resoundingly in the affirmative. I say "not surprisingly" because the study was sponsored by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. What possible economic interest could the folks at Georgetown University have in promoting ever-increasing levels of college attendance? As the authors tell us in their introduction, they "are honored to be partners in [the] mission of promoting postsecondary access and completion for all Americans."

They might have wanted to tag this statement with a big SPOILER ALERT. This study couldn’t have turned out any other way.

"The data are clear: a college degree is key to economic opportunity," the report concludes, "conferring substantially higher earnings on those with credentials than those without."

Some of what the report reveals is obvious. Workers who never finish high school often don’t make all that much money. Workers with professional or graduate degrees sometimes make a boatload of it. It’s good to be a doctor or a lawyer. And as for the vast swath of jobs in the middle, the ones between janitor and cardiologist, workers with a bachelor’s degree will indeed earn more than their less-educated counterparts. A human-resources manager who has not attended college can expect to earn $1.9 million over the course of a working lifetime; throw in a four-year degree, and the figure increases by a cool million. A food-service manager can expect to take home $1.2 million in a 40-year work life; that same manager with a bachelor’s can pull in $1.8 million. A college sheepskin will boost the figure for a paralegal or legal assistant from $1.7 million to $2 million, or about $7,500 a year, figuring an employment span of 40 years.

OK, so the college premium exists. That doesn’t make it necessary or right.

What the study reveals inadvertently is most interesting: just how many positions are currently being filled by those who never made it past high school.

Some numbers will come as no surprise: 71 percent of janitors have only high-school degrees. Fully three quarters of all pest-control and grounds-maintenance workers are in the same situation. A little more than half of barbers and cosmetologists have a high-school diploma or less; the same holds true for 67 percent of tobacco-roasting-machine operators.

But did you know that 11 percent of "chief executives and legislators"—the study’s categorization—have been only to high school? The figure jumps to 23 percent with an associate’s degree or less. Eighteen percent of general and operations managers never attended college. Education administrators—now that might seem a highly educated group, but 5 percent have seen no reason to pass through the gates of higher education, and 14 percent have only some college. Claims adjusters, appraisers, examiners, and investigators—18 percent haven’t gone beyond high school, and twice that don’t have a four-year college degree. Fourteen percent of advertising salespersons went to high school and then called it quits. High school only: electrical and electronics engineers, 4 percent; industrial engineers, 8 percent.

Some of these percentages might not be large, but their very existence demonstrates the fact that those without college, or without a completed college degree, can probably do their jobs just fine.

American colleges would have us believe that the skills they purport to teach, the critical thinking and higher levels of reasoning and all that, are crucial to competent performance in the workplace. This is baloney, less a line of reasoning than a sales pitch rooted in academic snobbery—a naked appeal to our intellectual insecurities.

Do we want to extend the argument, and say that those lacking a Bachelor’s degree are the absolute worst at their jobs? Twelve percent of financial managers have only a high-school education—are they the ones who plunged the country into the recession we can’t seem to climb out of? Perhaps the 14 percent of human-resource managers who didn’t go to college are the ones who are keeping our unemployment rate hovering at 10 percent. The 4 percent of miscellaneous engineers, including nuclear engineers, who didn’t get past high school—did we dispatch a delegation of those Homer Simpson-like nincompoops to help set up the safety systems for Tokyo’s nuclear reactors? I guess we should blame the bottom 8 percent of securities, commodities, and financial-services sales agents for designing all those toxic-mortgage instruments.

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The surgeon and the rocket scientist require specialized training, but most occupations are not brain surgery and not rocket science. The students I teach as an adjunct are pointed toward midlevel careers. If not for America’s lopsided love affair with higher education, none of my students would really require the B.A or B.S. degrees toward which they labor painfully. High-school literacy math skills would be quite sufficient. Four years of college are, for them, a waste of time and an economic burden. According to the latest figures from The Project on Student Debt, it’s fair to assume that more than 60 percent of them will graduate with student loans, and those debts will average about 25 grand.

The college premium exists, unfortunately, but it’s an artificial construct. Colleges have inserted themselves squarely in the occupational world. Industry and academia march hand in hand to a song of credential inflation: young people who aspire to working at anything beyond fast-food assembly won’t get a look without the college diploma. Most B.A. degrees say little to employers in terms of specific skills; they are a marker, like a hand stamp that gains one entrance to a nightclub. They point to little more than a willingness to pay college tuition and complete degree requirements. Those lacking higher education find themselves ineligible for promotion, herded to lesser career tracks.

There are more college graduates in the United States than ever before. Are things running noticeably more smoothly?

A firefighter with a college degree can expect to earn, in his lifetime, $600,000 more than his counterparts without. When my house is burning down, when I’m trapped on an upper floor, I want simply the best firefighter to come to my aid. I want someone brave and true and skilled in the art of rescue. I have no interest in reading his research paper on Maslow’s Hierarchy or his final exam comparing To His Coy Mistress and My Last Duchess.