The report (PDF), "What's it Worth: the Economic Value of College Degrees," Georgetown University put out last week on the earnings of college graduates, based on their majors, likely prompted some frank Memorial Day weekend discussions between parents and their soon-to-be freshmen about the wonderful lives that petroleum engineers lead. You'll go to faraway, exotic places in search for oil! You'll use cool devices that look inside the earth! And you have a good shot at earning $120,000, or more, annually.
On the other hand, son or daughter, if you want to study psychology and counsel people, you might earn only $29,000 per year, or even less. It's hard to repay college loans on that salary, let alone cover rent. ("By the way, Mom and I plan to turn your bedroom into a den.")
The report's quantification of the vast differences between the lowest earning majors and the highest drew the most attention from journalists and bloggers. That information was new, and rankings always attract clicks. What deserved more attention and analysis, however, was the report's unequivocal assertion that, regardless of major, there is no more certain investment than a college education.
That's consistent with decades of data, as well as with the thrust of the Obama administration's education policies. But it's worth restating because some elites are questioning the value of college. Some economists on the left say the U.S. has enough college graduates to drive a robust economy. Others on the right say that because more college graduates are now working at jobs that don't require a degree, they shouldn't have bothered to go to college in the first place.
That was also the main theme of a May 19 story in the New York Times that used anecdotes, as well as employment data for recent graduates, to suggest that for many, college had been a waste.
That's an incredibly shortsighted way of looking at the situation. I suspect that relatively few lifelong careers are launched by first jobs. There is no expiration date on the knowledge and skills learned in college. Aren't we told all the time that today's graduates will pursue multiple careers during their working lives?
Indeed, last fall the Times reported that the value of a college education was growing, not eroding. After 11 years in the workforce, that report found, college graduates' higher earnings "compensated for four years out of the labor force and for student loans, at 6.8 percent interest, to cover the average tuition and fees at a public four-year university."
Students who attend high priced, no-name schools and graduate with enormous debts, but without learning much, may not have the same good fortune. Indeed, the wide variance in earnings reported by Georgetown reminds us that a college credential is not a vaccination against unemployment or low wages. What students get out of it depends in part on what school they attend, how engaged they are in learning and what they study.
Graduates' job prospects also depend on whether they've gotten internships, taken full advantage of their college's placement office, linked up with alumni, stayed current with the field they're interested in and pursued opportunities to volunteer. Schooling alone doesn't guarantee career success. But without it, many, many doors are permanently closed.
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