But don’t you earn more with a college degree?

by Steve Wyckoff on November 16, 2010

I was asked a really good question recently following a presentation on school change. I was asked to explain the paradox between two schools of thought regarding college educations. On one hand we read all the time the data that indicates how much more money you will earn in your lifetime as a college graduate, and on the other hand how overrated a college education can be.

I should’ve thought about this long before now but it appears to me that the answer is all about averages. When you consider the  high potential lifetime earning power of some college degrees and the very low potential of others, on average college graduates do very well.

But when you consider that  according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants, you can see that these college degrees bring that average way down.

All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

Looking a little deeper, 4 of 10 of the most popular majors include, Social Sciences (ex. History and Political Science) Psychology, Communication, and English. The most popular careers of these majors include retail store managers, customer service representatives, and administrative assistants, none of which are high salary careers.

I don’t have any problem with an individual earning a college degree and choosing any career they choose. What I do object to is telling high school students and their parents that they absolutely must have a college degree in order to be successful in life, but failing to tell them that not all college degrees will earn them enough money to even pay off their college loans.

It is unconscionable to imply that every college degree has the same earning power. Students should be given all of the information before they choose from among their post secondary options. Yes, with the right college degree your chances of making a much better living are greatly enhanced. But if you choose the wrong college degree, and exacerbate the problem with excessive college loans, you will never approach the earning power you desire.

What’s even more frustrating is the erroneous message we give high school kids that our core curriculum is essential for them to obtain that college degree that leads to high salaries. Our core curriculum is much more closely associated with those college degrees that lead to low salaries.

I suspect that if students and parents had all the facts they would be much more inclined to support school change that changed our core curriculum to a more appropriate offering. – Steve Wyckoff

Bill Hagerman November 17, 2010 at 7:42 am

I think that the most important point you make here is that kids and parents should be aware of the earning potential of the college degree that they are pursing. Now I know that there are no guarantees on these, and jobs change, but wouldn’t this certainly be Financial Literacy 101? How relevant would that lesson be! – Bill Hagerman

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