Once upon a time, only a few percent of Americans had a college degree. After World War II, soldiers returned and used the G.I. Bill to go to college, then they got married, had kids, and sent their kids to college. Pretty soon nearly 25 percent of the country had a bachelor’s degree.
Well, why can’t everybody have one? Indeed, the push is on to provide all Americans with the benefits of higher education, and governments pour money into it. Of course, this causes colleges and universities to get more expensive — we’ve been adding money to higher ed much faster than we’ve been building lecture halls and dorms. What’s worse, the more college degrees there are, the less they’re worth.
I mean, what were we thinking? If everyone is college-educated, suddenly there’ll be middle-management jobs for us all? But who will be the janitors? The maintenance people, the security guards, the baristas? People with bachelor’s degrees, that’s who.
Businesses use a college diploma as a way to filter job applicants. When everybody has one, though, the winners in the employment derby will need … advanced degrees! And so it is, in many industries these days. In business, an MBA helps a lot. To be a nurse, you usually need a Master’s degree. The competition is heating up.
Yet the push for universal higher education continues. There must be another reason. Originally, going to college was supposed to be an eye opening, mind expanding experience that would improve us as human beings. No one but college recruiters takes that idea seriously anymore. Instead it’s all about the money.
…Or maybe it’s about status. A bachelor’s degree has traditionally signaled that you’re intellectually superior to someone with a mere high school diploma. Clearly that won’t work if everyone finishes college; it’ll be like it is today, when nearly everybody gets through high school. And, like I said, we end up with janitors who have college degrees. So maybe, just maybe … the political push to give everyone a degree isn’t so much about advancing the opportunities for the poor and minorities as it is about draining the college degree of its prestige.
When a college sheepskin becomes no more distinctive than a high school diploma, people with bachelor’s will no longer be able to lord it over anyone else.
If that’s the real goal — to dilute the value of college — then those of you wondering if you should finish your higher education for its monetary rewards might want to re-think your options. Today’s four-year degree has gotten so expensive, it takes years, and sometimes decades, to pay it off. That once was true only for CPAs and attorneys, but now it’s becoming the norm for everyone who enters the ivy-covered halls of academe. On top of that, student loan defaults are going up, in part because a college degree no longer leads to incomes high enough to defray the loans.
Assuming you want money and don’t want to end up behind the financial eight-ball, there are several other approaches. If you’re good at sales, they won’t care where you went to school, and the money can be stupendous. If you have a knack for business, starting one can reap big rewards. (Silicon Valley, for example, loves it if your resumé includes a start-up that you sold for a profit.) Or what about the trades? Electricians, plumbers, and carpenters make very decent wages: median pay approaches $50K per year plus bennies, while the best can charge more than $100 an hour for high-end work.
There’s a joke about a man who marries off his daughter, and at the reception he greets an old college buddy: “Great to see you again! Let me introduce you to the rest of my kids. This is Richard — he’s an MBA. And this is Paul, an attorney downtown. And Bill, he’s a doctor. And this is Bob. He’s a plumber.” … “A plumber?” … “Well sure,” says the dad, “Somebody’s gotta pay for all that education!”
For my money, though, I’d go into electrical work — it’s a lot less messy.