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Your Take: Is a College Degree Worth It?

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A topic that came up often at the start of the recession was the value of a college degree. As the cost of college skyrockets, people are wondering if it really makes sense to put off earning power for four years and pursue higher education. It makes for a prime candidate for a Your Take! :)

One of the more recent and better articulated reasons in favor of a college degree comes from our friend Chris Farrell (I reviewed his book New Frugality and he’s a regular on Marketplace Money), writing for Bloomberg BusinessWeek (a great publication with iPad support, kudos!). A good counter argument comes from a more dated article, back in late 2009, but the arguments presented in the Time Business article are also compelling. I think the answer will depend on your particular situation, what degree and at what cost, but neither side is definitively “right.”

I personally think the right college degree is like a defensible moat. Why are lawyers so highly paid? Because they have a moat. You need to pass the bar, which usually means you need to go to law school, and that usually means you need money or access to loans. Why are the list of the highest paid jobs mostly engineers? You will usually need a degree, it’s hard to learn that stuff on your own, and college is a pre-requisite. College degrees provide a moat for those who can get one, protecting them against competition from people who haven’t earned the degrees or learned those skills.

If you work in retail, you are competing with almost everyone for your job. That doesn’t mean you are any less valuable, it just means that you face a lot more competition. A high school graduate will not compete with a law school graduate for a clerkship, the law school graduate competes with a much smaller pool of candidates. Your local Starbucks barrista competes for his or her job with almost every other person looking for a job – that’s a lot of people.

Do you think college degrees are worth it?

{ 48 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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48 Responses to “Your Take: Is a College Degree Worth It?”

  1. A college degree is a great idea if you have a solid plan for where you’re going in life and a strategy for paying down any debt you might build up.

    The problem is – too many Americans think that just by getting a degree they are guaranteed a job. You still have to be a valuable employee.

    Unless your a recent college grad – most employers are going to look at your experience not your education. That’s not to say an education won’t open up doors to new experiences – it will!

    But if you end up with $50-grand in student loan debt, a Communications degree from an expensive private college, and you STILL don’t know what you want to do with your life. That’s a problem!

  2. Wilma says:

    I’m up in the air on this one. I’ve worked in factories and distribution centers since high school. I made good money and my 401k is hopefully my life line in the future. Now if you want to calculate in the cost of injuries to my body due to repetitive motion jobs then maybe college would’ve been the way to go. I’m now coming up on the big question. I’m single and 17 years away from retirement if they don’t raise the age. So where do I go from here? My body surely won’t hold out and I really am not sure what to go to college for if I did go. So in those terms those of you who went can refresh your skills and add onto your education to go in another direction. I will be starting out fresh with no direction and a mortgage payment. I could sell the house I’m sure but what I’d like to do when I grow up is still the question.

  3. Yes, and no. Even entry-level jobs are able to require a college degree these days, because there are so many applicants. I’d strongly urge students to get the best possible degree for the least possible expenditure (e.g., two years at community college and then transfer to a state university).
    But I’m also with the folks who say that some people just don’t belong in college but have been told all their lives that they’ll go.
    The son of a friend of mine struggled in high school (ADD) and went to college for about three weeks before quitting. He already had a job at a pizza place, so he went to full-time while figuring out his next move. (In fact, although he’d just turned 18 he was made a shift manager.) After about nine months B decided to become a plumber.
    My reaction? “Good for him!” It’s an honorable job, albeit a tough and dirty one, and it pays well. He can support himself and maybe a family, quite nicely.
    Bonus: He’s a very frugal kid, and plans to save much of his salary on the advice of an instructor who told him, “Look around — you won’t see too many OLD plumbers.”
    Thus if B puts aside a bunch of his pay, he can afford to change course later in life.
    Had he stayed in college he would have continued to struggle, turned in mediocre grades and wasted the tuition. And you know what? If at 35 he decides he wants to try again, he can.

  4. David says:

    Personally I think the real value of a degree is none. I got a Bachelor’s degree and I don’t feel smarter or more special. I know people that have been successful without a degree. I have an uncle who is very successful and I don’t think he even finished elementary school. Back in the day there weren’t any degrees and I don’t think people were stupid for that.

    With that said, I do think it’s part of the rules of the game. To get this job, they put have a degree in or a related field (having a degree in a related field can mean taking totally different courses non-relating to the current job opening). To be a manager in this – have a degree. It has become proof to show that you are a “decent” upper class or wealthy person that can get done with something, in contrast to an upper middle class person who just parties and can’t get anything done. For a poor to have a degree it even shows more, it shows that person was able to overcome obstacles for something that’s not in the reach of the poor. So I guess, in that way that’s how it helps.

    Like I mentioned before, in terms of real value, it could be more valuable if things changed within the system. First of all I think some professors are just poor, sure it is college, but people are paying for instructor led classes. Some Universities only care to have big names but they are bad professors. Second – I don’t know if it’s the same in all states, but in my state (Texas) they require you to take a lot of credit in “core curriculum” classes involving US History, Government, Economics, etc that take as much as 2 of the 4 years your degree should take. I find these classes irrelevant because they teach the same stuff that should have been taught at Middle School and High School. Finally, the grading system is horrible. I don’t have a solution for that, but it just feels like grade school. On top of that, most universities offer little on-the-job skills or opportunities for internships. I think the government has to step in that one as well. To promote internships.

    With all of that said, a college degree has the same value as “bribing” a college official and paying him or her $40,000 without going to school the four years but showing that you graduated. You lear nothing. The only thing valuable is the fact that “you graduated”, as that matters in the job market. And I know some people might get upset with some of my comments because they invested money and time and effort, and might accuse me of being the one that didn’t take full advantage, but I feel that’s my truth.

    I have been learning stuff in relation to my degree but on my own, things that weren’t even included in the 4 yr plan but have helped me more.

  5. Eric says:

    While I cannot say enough about what a university education provides to the diligent student, this is not about that but whether the big bucks to attend are worth the trouble. So if you are extremely gifted, and have all the skills and opened doors needed to land that top position and 75K+ compensation for your 4 year education at the fortune 500 company out of college, yes the money put into the education is clearly worth it. If you are the rest of the 90% of college undergraduates, then I think this article more likely applies than the description for highest paid positions or for a lawyer (6 yr degree), doctor (8-10 yr degree), etc or other advanced degrees that the 4 or 2 yr degreed graduate cannot get. They do not teach you how to get a job while at the university, or build those traits necessary to get one so most people are not ready for the real world when they graduate.

    My parents have always told me that in their day, a college degree was never a prerequisite for success. As you look around today though, just about every position, other than starbucks barristas or taco bell food champions, require both education and experience. Furthermore, societies and special interests push for further regulation of fields through state and federal legislation which have the result of education requirements, minimum experience, and certification requirements which bar otherwise talented persons from engaging in those fields of work. Even the trades require both education and certification, and old trades like nursing has went from low pay non professional to a high paying, professional and highly regulated position not open to those without the education. To sum up what I am trying to point out here, old assumptions on what jobs require education are indeed old and special interests and increased frivilous lawsuits against companies are closing every door that used to be open to the non-educated. Yes the price of a college education is beyond reasonable, but you really have to ask yourself is what choice do you really have. Most people would rather just get the loans required to get the degree than to be relegated to washing dishes in a restaurant, flipping burgers, or doing unskilled construction work or other similar dead beat work with minimum wage pay and no benefits. So yes paying for education is worth it in the long run but like any other commodity your learned skillset has to match your abilities, your projected budget, projected time, and have quality that is valued in the marketplace. My advice to those reading this wanting to get a degree: do your research on what positions pay, how your abilities, budget, and time match up to those highest paid positions that you like, and pick the best value university or trade school (yes they have books for this) and then get the loans to go without switching interests and degrees multiple times like many students do which wastes time and money. My personal opinion and without regard to type of work but only pay, requirements, and benefits: nursing has the best bang for the buck. 2 years education at a cheap community college will get you more pay than most 4 year degrees will get you, more benefits, and the requirements keep out otherwise qualified persons from the position which makes you highly paid and in demand anywhere. This is an unbiased opinion as I am a mechanical engineer, and realize that yes I am in a good field but no it is not the best bargain. I probably would do nursing if I had it over again as my student debt really makes me think about its worth every day.

  6. Scott says:

    I’m a parent, 49 years old. I have a twenty year old son trying to find his way upstream. The problem isn’t whether or not to go to college. The problem is the teachers unions. Yes an education would be great. Anything helps. The SU colleges in Ca. just raised the rates another 9%. They have raised the rates 9% every year for the past 9 years. I student coming here from another country pays twice as much. They take their skills and go back and make their country what ours used to be.
    Stop wasting money on ridiculous degrees that just prolong the inevitable…(Getting a Job)!
    Fight the unions! Fight for yourselves! Fight for the future of America!

  7. Terrence says:

    I laugh at people with college degrees. I would rather have a copyright and/or trademark emblazoned on my wall rather than a college degree. Ask yourself what’s more important a degree or copyrights/trademark to a product/service you can market to specific target audience? I opt for the copyrights/trademark over a degree!

    P.S.

    My father barely graduated high school started his own business and receives phone calls from people with Masters degrees and PHD’s who beg my high school graduate father to loan them money to save their house. Hahahahahahahahaha! What happened to that Ivy League Education? I thought that was to supposed to “pay off” [End Quote] for you.

  8. Tim says:

    I am very different than most of you, I think.
    I graduated high school in 1986. I had dreams of becoming a Highway Patrolman. I needed to attend a Junior College but when my parents refused to sign papers to help with college I was stuck that dream died. I had no money, no car, no place to live and no help to navigate through the educational system after high school even if I did have a safety net.

    I went into the Navy also against my parents will. I was too immature for the Navy, had lived in a small rural town and attended a high school that was about 300 people. I was admittedly, sheltered and immature, which didn’t help. After I left the Navy, only in for two years but received an Honorable discharge. I found myself on my own with no place to live and no job prospects. I lived with my older brother for a short time, then moved in with my parents who by then, had moved to the mid west from California. I ended up working in a pig farm, and metal factory before deciding to, on a whim go to Cosmetology school. That decision didn’t work out so well and never really got my footing after that, which also included falling in love, getting married for the first time and having her cheat on me after moving halfway back to California, all in a period of 4 years of my life.

    Fast forward, I have been married now for going on 17 years, have two teen kids and during the last 15 years have been a stay at home dad; caring for their every need, in every way that a mother would. (No jokes please)

    With crushing debt from only having a single income for most of this period of time and in some cases no income when my wife lost her job, we accrued about $50K in debt not to mention prior student loan debt from Cosmetology school and my wife’s Bachelor degree.

    Currently, I have to make some choices. I’ve been looking for work applied to about 200 jobs in the past 4 years and have not had a single interview. I have applied to jobs that I am perfectly capable of doing, just need OJT, I possess a lot of the soft skills companies are looking for in an employee but just don’t get the job.

    Now I am looking at going to a JC to get an AA degree. We can’t afford a trade school, out of pocket. We can only pay as I go with a class here or there. The odd thing is, they require taking Math and English classes that I have never had before, Matriculation.

    I don’t even know what I would be good at; at this point. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with people in life; feel a little jaded to be honest just due to life. I understand how things work in the business world. I am pretty sure I don’t want to be a cog in a wheel, some middle management guy, slaving over a desk, over worked and under appreciated and stressed out; that’s not me.

    I am creative by nature but at the same time I am a Conservative person, so I would have concerns about someone with my beliefs working in a liberal field which creative’s usually do. I have tried to start and run my own photography business on the side. Have done that for ten years with some success but can’t find a full time job doing that either, even though there have been job postings, I have web sites and portfolio’s yet I don’t get hired for those either.

    I am in a huge rut, more like a cravats (sp?). Not sure I am the school type. I never have liked school- but the walls are closing in on me, and I feel pressured to get a decent job to pay of this debt and begin a retirement nest egg etc.

    Take it easy on the grammar and spelling errors, I notice even writers for AP have made errors in articles and stories.

  9. Daniel says:

    I’ve always asked myself this question.

    I think the problem is that there are NO jobs.
    Colleges have become complacent about pretty much wasting student’s time while charging an exorbitant tuition.

    On the other hand, I read some of the comments, and I see highly intelligent with critical thinking answers from those that did go to college.

    While I see the answers of those that didn’t go to college, only as focusing on money, as if it were the most important thing in life, of inferiority feelings (laughing or mocking those that did go to college to feel superior.

    I see it all the time. If anything, college teaches you to be mature, have critical thinking skills, and see the big picture.

    Someone without college may make money, but sometimes they just miss the point and many deep inside still resent not going to college.

    You just have to be careful of on top of all the above mentioned, to choose a major that will help you make a living and not make unwise money decisions (sometimes guided out of the ignorance of not having gone to college yet).

    It’s not about college, it’s just about making the right decisions, about not going beyond your means, have informed expectations, and that’s it.

    Money is not everything.

    I prefer to be a middle class educated person that lives comfortably, than a rich uneducated person that brags and thinks they need to rub it on everyone else that they have money without a degree.


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