A College Degree Might be Worth Nothing

It’s part of the conventional wisdom that there is a big payoff in higher earnings if you go to college. Politicians and education leaders often cite statistics showing that students who get their degree will earn as much as a million dollars more during their careers than students who have only a high school diploma.

Obviously, this is a no-brainer – young people should want to go to college and officials should do everything they can to expand access for them. Higher education is a great personal and national investment since we’re entering the “Information Economy.”

So it is newsworthy when someone in the education establishment challenges the idea that there is a huge payoff to getting a college degree. That’s what happened earlier this month when Charles Miller, who served as the Chairman of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education wrote to the president of The College Board, complaining that its widely circulated annual report “Education Pays” greatly exaggerates the financial benefit that a student can expect from college.

In his letter to College Board president Gaston Caperton, Miller said, “The lifetime earnings differential has had such an important place in higher education in justifying the costs of receiving a college degree that any conclusion derived from it must absolutely stand on sound assumptions.” He then proceeded to question the assumptions and arguing that as an investment, college might have a negative return for some students.

He’s absolutely right. Public officials should stop tossing around big numbers – or any numbers at all – as the payoff from going to college. There’s no guarantee that a degree will necessarily have any financial benefit. Going to college guarantees a lot of expenses, but does not guarantee compensating rewards.

Back in 1999, professors Frederic Pryor and David Schaffer published a book entitled Who’s Not Working and Why. It showed that the United States had been producing so many college graduates that many were taking jobs that called for no advanced academic study and had traditionally been filled by people with only high school educations. In the years since then, the great push to get as many students as possible into college has intensified. While some young Americans use their college educations as a springboard to tremendous financial success, many others end up in jobs with modest pay.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics compiles data on occupations and the educational credentials of the workers in them. If you access the BLS site you find a host of interesting information. For instance, 45 percent of insurance sales agents have a BA degree, compared with 36 percent who have “some college” and 18 percent with a high school education. Among fitness and aerobics trainers, 47 percent have a BA, compared with 32 percent who have “some college” and 21 percent with a high school education. We find that 25 percent of retail sales supervisors, 31 percent of airline flight attendants, 22 percent of customer service representatives, 26 percent of travel agents, and 11 percent of correctional officers have a BA.

That’s just a small sample.

The BLS statistics confirm that large numbers of Americans with college degrees are not earning big bucks in jobs that demand years of academic preparation. They’re often doing work that can be and is done by others who have not spent years of their lives and accumulated considerable debts in obtaining college degrees.

None of this is meant to say that it’s a bad thing to have college educated claims adjusters, floral designers, purchasing agents, and massage therapists. They may have enjoyed learning about history, philosophy, literature and so forth – or whatever courses they took – and may be better people for it. But let’s not proclaim that taking the courses needed for a degree will lead to financial gain for everyone. For many it’s a huge debt trap.

Large numbers of young Americans enroll in college who have no interest in academic studies and just want the degree that is supposedly the ticket to the good life. They’ve been led to believe that there are no good jobs for people who lack a bachelor’s degree. That isn’t true, but the swarm of ill-prepared, disinterested students puts downward pressure on academic standards. Many people have observed that for the typical student, a college degree today is the equivalent of a high school diploma of fifty years ago.

When the Class of 2008 graduates in a few weeks, a lot of the students are going to discover that having the BA credential is no magic charm. Most of them won’t land the sort of alluring job they probably imagined they were qualified for.

Just as we’ve over-encouraged home ownership, with bad results for many borrowers, we have over-encouraged college. For some students, it’s a poor investment.