The Idea of the “Worthless” College Degree

new york public libraryI keep seeing stories about “worthless” college degrees. That’s hard for me to understand when I look at the comparisons between the economic lives of those who have a college degree and those who don’t. College is obviously worth something on the market.

Now, is the college graduate always going to have a better economic future than a technically trained person (such as Rubio’s welder or a plumber or what have you)? No. But in general, the college educated person has a much easier time navigating the job market than those who don’t have such a degree. To choose one indicator, those who have college degrees experience a much lower unemployment rate than those who don’t.  It’s silly to keep arguing that college is worthless.

But let’s go a little deeper.  Let’s assume that you think the content of the learning at college is worthless.  So, take a history major and assume that you believe the information transmitted is of zero worth.  I disagree strongly, but let’s assume it, anyway.  The student who majors in history spends four years showing up on time to class, learning how to take notes, reading, writing, observing how professors think and work, and hanging out with a group of people who are pursuing their education.  At a minimum, the habits and raw skills picked up in the course of such an experience are worth something.

This is where grades come in to some extent.  If you take a student who has majored in something unrelated to the job for which they are applying, I would ask about their grades.  If they have proven they can satisfy their professors through on-time performance, following instructions, and showing up (which is a big deal), then that means something to me.  It means they are willing to learn, can do what they have been asked to do, and can do it successfully.  That’s a person who can function well in the workplace.

Let’s take it further again.  I double majored in economics and political science as an undergraduate.  My learning in those subjects have enriched my life in many ways.  My life as a citizen is better.  I know more and understand more than I otherwise would.  I have a broader range of things I enjoy reading and watching beyond just popular entertainments.  I encounter the world in a more sophisticated way.  The way I evaluate institutions, the things I think about when interacting with a salesperson, the way I think about incentives . . . these are all things that are positively influenced by my education, whether or not I ended up using it in a direct, professional way.

We could go on.  Education is good.  It just is.  The only reason we are getting these stories about it being “worthless” is  because tuition prices are high.  That’s a valid complaint, but don’t make the mistake of turning a dissatisfaction with price into a critique of the substance of higher education more broadly.

But you know what worries me?  The people who write these stories about “worthless” college degrees appear not to appreciate their own education.  But that’s okay.  They’re in good company.  Peter Thiel (who co-founded Paypal and was an original Facebook investor) pays young people not to go to college.  He doesn’t seem to recognize the good his philosophy degree at Stanford did for him.

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4 thoughts on “The Idea of the “Worthless” College Degree

  1. My cynicism about college degrees (even as I work for my Master’s) is to a large degree a reaction against the culture I grew up in, the great push during the ’60s and ’70s to change the culture into one that considered the BA an essential for everyone. It isn’t. Some people have aptitudes for careers that require a liberal arts education. Other people, equally valuable, are bored silly by college courses and love to tinker with motors or build cabinets. I’ve come to believe that the drive put Every Single Young Person through college was an attempt to get the majority of them into a place where they could be indoctrinated into leftist activism.

      • I suppose it’s a reflexive reaction. And there certainly has been some bait and switch going on. Young people were promised a higher standard of living because they got their degrees, only to find themselves without jobs and deep in debt. The debt part adds insult to injury. When anything is oversold, you get pushback.

  2. That’s part of what is at issue, though. As I stated earlier, the economic life of the college graduate tends to be much better than that of high school only grads. And that even goes for the humanities grads.

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