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March 15, 2011


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I totally agree. College degrees (and too many of them are not career preparing degrees...) are over-valued by our society. Too many young people get discouraged with the college prep curriculum and drop out of high school. We tell our kids that they should be doctors or lawyers to be successful, and look down our noses at other professions, such as plumbers and carpenters. Consequently, many blue collar jobs are now being performed by immigrants (many being illegal). Our emphasis on higher education is perhaps creating a wedge that is further dividing our society into the haves and have-nots.

This article is too true. Not everyone is college material, the world still needs garbage men, carpenters and plumbers. Also, it's interesting that only 30% get the degree. From a money mgmt standpoint it seems like too great of a risk.

By the way, the biggest house in my town is owned by a plumber.

Note that the article said 30% complete a college degree. It doesn't mention how many start college, but never finish.

Hypothetically, if FMF's guess of 50% of students go on to college, but only 30% graduate, the other 20% have been mis-served, pushed into going to college by society, when that path just wasn't for them. That's a lot of wasted time and money.

By way of history, where I grew up in the UK, before WWII, the government position was that only 10% of the population needed to have a university degree. There were few universities and they were located in only the largest cities. Going to a university was a "Class" issue and there was little emphasis placed upon Science, especially for a young lad from the working class with a father that was a fireman and a typical mother that stayed at home to take care of the many chores that existed in the days before everyone had major appliances, and before women learned to drive.

I was a top student and passed my high school leaving exams with very high grades and was eligible for a tution only scholarship to the University of London, 100 miles away. My parents couldn't possibly afford to support me if I lived away from home so I looked for the next best thing which in those days was a 5 year apprenticeship. I was accepted by a nearby aircraft company as a trade apprentice with a possibility of becoming an engineering apprentice if I did well in Math & Engineering classes at a local municipal college that I attended one day/week and every evening.

I told my headmaster that I was leaving school to become an engineer. He was an intimidating old man, in his cap & gown, with an MA from Oxford University, and schooled in the Classics. His first question to me was, "Why do you want to drive a steam train?", since that was his idea of what an engineer did. He wanted me to become a member of the Civil Service and go off to one of Britain's many colonies in Africa to be an administrator of some kind.

That was the prevailing attitude in the educational system towards boys from the working class that did well at school. Fortunately, after WWII ended, the troops came home, voted out the Conservative party led by Winston Churchill and voted in the Labor Party, a party with the objective of raising the standard of living for the workers and establishing programs like the National Health System, followed by the nationalization of most major industries.

Today there is a large university in my old home town, as there are in towns and cities all over the UK. With the once large British Empire now all given their independance and the right it came with to live in the UK if so desired, Britain is now a totally different country. It isn't full of just White Anglo Saxon Protestants, as it was in my day, it is a mix of every color, nationality, and religion there is, and after many years is very Democratic and more like the USA. My public high school had 1000 boys, 997 were nominally Church of England protestants, 2 were Catholic, and 1 was Jewish - all were white. At morning assembly there were prayers and hymns, followed by a lecture from the headmaster. The non protestants were excused the religious portion of morning assembly.

I was the first in the history of my family to get a degree but after I left, most of my younger nieces and nephews went on to get college degrees. Today the UK mirrors the USA in education and demographics and the biggest criticism I hear from my elderly relatives is that my old home town has been taken over by mobs of unruly foreign students that are there to get a free university education.

I've been working on a post that discusses this very topic, but can say that I'm aligned with your previous bias that a kid today should attend college. Now, where a kid goes to school and the debt involved is cruicial in the decision. Like any investment, one must quantify the NPV involved. It's certainly not an exact science, and there are many qualitative aspects involved as well - such as, happiness and personal fit! That said, I think that the mindset of 30 years ago - where college is optional and represents a bold step - doesn't fit for today's kids.

There are legitimate degrees for real professions and careers.I am talking, doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, architects ,engineers etc.

There are far more degrees that will get you no where in a career unless you are creative after you get it. Communications, political science, history. If you can't figure out that creative way to find a job with that degree it becomes useless.

To many people going to college? Probably.
To many people seeiking degrees that will become useless? Definetly.

Oh, there are so many things wrong with this post!

Most kids should plan on going to college. College these days is not even hard, it is basically similar to what high school used to be. Being educated is its own reward--it is good for society and it helps individual people make good choices and hopefully gain the critical thinking skills and knowledge of the world to avoid scams, conspiracy theorists, bad business deals, and smooth talking politicians. Most decent jobs that you'd be able to raise a family on require a college degree, so not getting one is a guarantee for a pretty hard life unless you're really lucky.

However, it is a misapprehension to think a bachelors' degree is equivalent to "job training". If you want job training, you should work at a job or at least an internship while you are attending college, so you can build your career at the same time. It also helps you avoid too much debt. Or apprentice yourself to a plumber and get your college education at night.

The important thing is to think of your job/career growth as an important goal that you can work on while you are obtaining that degree that will open other doors for you.

I think it's so weird that kids these days think they can enter the job market at a high level without any experience just because they have a degree. This has never been the case. You always have to start at the bottom, job-wise, so you might as well do this while you're still attending school.

It is also a mistake to think that just "attending" college is enough. You'll get out of it what you put into it. If you take those easy idiot courses, then don't be surprised if that's the education that you end up with. It's your education that you're paying for--make sure it is worth it.

Oh and the drop out rate is not the "chance" that a student won't finish. It's not random at all: you have a 100% chance of finishing college in 4 years (or less) if you work hard and pay attention. It's the opposite of playing the lottery where you have a near 100% chance of losing your money: if you attend college you have a near 100% chance of getting your degree. I do wonder how many people who thought college was "too risky" still go ahead and play the lottery....

There is a big difference between what is attainable now with a high school degree, and what was attainable 20 or 30 years ago. I know plenty of engineers who I work with who don't have an engineering degree. They worked their way up. Know what? They wouldn't get a foot in the door these days. Times have changed.

A bachelors degree is needed for almost every job that used to just be high school equivalent.

Also, don't discount the TONS of jobs out there that don't care what you got your degree in, but still require that you have a degree.

I can't say I'm surprised that 30% of people finish a bachelors degree. Society has placed tons of emphasis on it. And that emphasis has a negative effect as well - people are surprised to learn that their plumber is making 100k/yr because they are "only a plumber" - as if that bachelors degree should make you earn more than someone in a specialized field that requires an apprenticeship that is just as long as a degree. But because people are told from the point when they are young that they need to go to college to get ahead in life, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The skyrocketing number of college students is also part of what makes college more expensive. There is more demand now than ever before. Colleges are turning people away at higher rates than they ever have been before. Why wouldn't prices be skyrocketing?

Yes too many people go to college. But its hard to blame the kids for doing so.

There aren't enough jobs out there that actually NEED college. Way too many people go to college and then drop out. That right there is a clear sign that too many people go to college.

But if you're a kid then going to college is considered the blanket one-size-fits-all "right thing to do to get ahead in life". So most people want to go to college and do so.

I think a big part of the problem is the parents who encourage their kids to go to college. One poll I found said 92% of parents think their kid is going to college. Many parents should probably be more open to alternative careers for their kid.

Another problem is grade inflation in high school. Right now almost 50% of college freshmen had A averages in high school. Back in 1980 it was only about 25%. If everyone gets A's and B's in high school then they will naturally feel they're qualified for college.

The majority of jobs (about 55%) in the US are not jobs that require any college. The majority of jobs are waitresses, truck drivers, janitors, auto mechanics, retail sales clerks, construction, hair stylists, etc. About 20% of the jobs are those that do *need* college, such as engineers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, etc. Around 20% of the jobs fall in between and may or may not 'require' college such as sales, police, artists, social services, etc. The other 5% of the jobs are in management which may or may not 'need' a degree. I'm making some generalizations here and there are exceptions of course like engineers without degrees or such.

"people are surprised to learn that their plumber is making 100k/yr because they are "only a plumber"

You don't actually think plumbers typically make $100k a year do you? Average wages for plumbers is about half that around $50k and 90% of plumbers make under $80k.

Its certainly a good paying job in most cases but its really not a $100k / yr job.

I agree totally!
Although my college degrees were essential for the work that I did during my career, the other benefits that ensued were many. I never thought that helping to design and analyze intercontinental ballistic missiles, their rocket motors and heatshields etc. would have large payoffs in completely different areas, but they did. The mathematics and programming skills that I acquired along the way were essential when I wanted to write financial analysis software that made a huge difference to my investing capability after I retired. The engineering knowledge I gained during my 5 year apprenticeship also enabled me to fix just about everything mechanical I have ever owned. In the old days I even used to fix everything on my cars myself until cars became so much more complicated as they started using more and more electronics and small appliances are now throwaways when they quit working.

Another huge difference has been working with a much higher caliber of co-workers than if I had stayed as a trade apprentice and ended up as a blue collar worker, going off to work in blue overalls every day. Interaction with my co-workers expanded my knowledge in so many ways. One example, I was sitting at my desk one day when a co-worker dropped a catalog in front of me. It was a catalog of adventure travel trips. That catalog opened up another world, one trip that caught my interest was "The Incas, the Andes, and the Amazon" - I signed up and had a wonderful adventure. That trip led to many more such as the climb of a 22,000ft peak near Mt. Everest in the Himalayas, and changed my life. Years later, the same co-worker dropped a book on my desk, it was titled, "The 10 greatest hikes in the world". As I thumbed through it I saw that one of them was in my own back yard - it was the John Muir Trail, a 211 mile hike through total wilderness from the top of Mt. Whitney, 14,495ft, to Yosemite Valley. That fantastic adventure cost me the price of a Greyhound bus ticket to Lone Pine, CA where I hitch-hiked to the trail head, and then for the next 16 days back-packed by myself up and over 7 High Sierra passes until I reached Yosemite Valley where my wife and daughter were waiting to drive me home.

Another co-worker introduced me to serious photography and constructing my own dark room where for years I used to make my own color prints, I also learned a lot about classical music from him. I feel very privileged to have worked in a group of extremely talented and very diversified and well educated people from many different backgrounds, throughout my whole career. Two or three became mentors that would always take the time to help me when I ran up against a problem that had me stymied. Another was so brilliant that he resigned and was then hired back in as a consultant at about three times the salary. The co-worker that introduced me to adventure travel left just before I retired to start his own 2 man software company, he developed a unique piece of software that is used every day by GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and many other engineering companies and is now very wealthy.

Looking back, I realize that if my life had been spent on the factory floor as a machinist, sheet metal worker, tool maker, or welder, it would have been totally different. Instead of enjoying more cerebral TV programs such as Nova, Nature, American Experience, Globe Trecker, Charlie Rose, etc. I would probably be watching "Two and a Half Men", Oprah, or Doctor Phil and would have probably never caught the travel bug, unless you consider giant Cruise ships, Casinos, and Club Med to be adventure travel.

Other occupations without college degrees:

Most in military service.
Skilled technicians - such as those that make medical or dental appliances like dentures or prosthetics.
Most general contractors.
Many airline pilots.
Most firefighters, emt's.

College has becpme a big business, just like weedings, proms, graduations, etc. Our child is a HS sophomore and at her school everyone takes the PSAT sophomore year. The College Board sells names based on your PSAT score and boy do the colleges send information trying to attract prospective students. I think about one hundred pieces of college mail have arrived in the past month. While my child is a good student and test taker this is crazy. We may just send said child to the local state university, since they do not as of yet know what they want to do when they grow up.

Mary Kay pretty much summed it up with her last sentence...

From what I see these days, most kids go to college because they think their is nothing else to do after High School.

In educated areas there is no emphasis on skilled trades that a lot of kids should be going into. Not everyone is college material but most think they are and spend too much time and money figuring it out the hard way. When they graduate and do not get anything out of their liberal arts/general business degree they seem to think going to grad school will make it all worth it and spend even more time and money.

I am going to honestly look at my kids when they are getting ready for college and assess if they are 'college material' or not, I have seen too many go down this incorrect path.

I agree that college is overrated. And I say this as having graduated from a large, well-respected university summa cum laude with a degree in the hard sciences. I also have an MBA from a second-tier school, which I obtained while working in my current job. Education is simply one mechanism to help get your foot in the door. I think having connections is far more important--as well as time. Thus, instead of leading everyone to college, what parents should be willing to do (and it costs much less) is develop loyal friendships with business owners and upstanding members of the community--those connections can help your kids find jobs at an early age, thus avoiding the debt trap and commencing saving at a younger age. Teach your kids the value of integrity and work ethic--not that they are inferior to those with a degree. If they choose to pursue a college education, make sure it is for a discipline that actually requires it (i.e, engineering, medicine, law, sciences, etc.). The world is too harsh these days to simply do things for altruistic or emotional reasons.

Old Limey,
As much as I appreciate your Insights and knowledge. Correct me If I am wrong, somehow I get the feeling that your elderly relatives harbour certain resentment for foreigners/foregin students ---biggest criticism I hear from my elderly relatives is that my old home town has been taken over by mobs of unruly foreign students that are there to get a free university education--- May be your relatives need to understand and possibly be educated on the fact that Government of UK does give scholarships to citizens of its common wealth countries that were part of its British Raj.

It depends.

Is the purpose of college :

1 ) To get an education
2 ) To obtain a degree as a pathway to a job
3 ) Another stage in being exposed to people of different backgrounds
4 ) more years of socialization (indoctrination)

Certainly the financial value of a BS degree has declined in recent decades.

For the most part folks can graduate from High school OR college in a state I would consider "un-educated"

Is the typical 18 year old mature enough for most work environments (or for the military) ?

Again .. it depends.

It bugs me (probably more than it should) when people refer to college students as kids. It's one thing if they're referring to their own children, but usually, that's not the case. The overwhelming majority of people who go to college are at least 18 years old by the time they start, and as such, they are adults. The sooner we start acting like they're adults and treating them as such, the sooner THEY will start acting like adults.

As has already been pointed out, college is not strictly a means of preparing people for jobs - though arguably, maybe it should be. In my experience, it was a means of preparing myself for LIFE. As the first person in my family to go to college, I learned about and gained access to an entire sector of the professional world and economy that I never would have known existed (much less had the opportunity to work in) had I not gone to college and earned a degree.

Strictly speaking, the degree I did earn is not necessary to the work I do. Technically, I could have been trained to do it fresh out of high school because simply put, it's not that difficult. But while I don't need my degree to DO the job, I did need it in order to GET the job.

There are a great many of these types of jobs, where having a degree has become a requirement, but is not technically necessary in order to actually DO the job. Reason being, requiring a degree of your employees serves as a means of ensuring that you attract a certain "caliber" person, people who've enjoyed a rather predictable set of experiences (most associated with going to college), and who are upwardly mobile.

And beyond that, while most people agree that "not everyone is cut out for college," almost NO ONE wants to be the one to admit that THEIR child is not cut out for college, which is why most parents encourage their kids to pursue higher education. I am not one myself, but I'm guessing that when parents ask their 4 year olds what they want to be when they grow up, they don't want to hear "a plumber!" or "a garbage man!" in response, however lucrative those careers might be. They want their children to dream big, and and as such, they want to hear responses like lawyer, doctor, teacher and architect.

That said, FMF, we are seeing the beginnings of a severe shortage of people who work in the skilled trades - as more and more of the people who made good, middle-class careers out of these jobs retire. So if your primary interest where your children are concerned is that they prepare for and obtain jobs that they're good at and that will pay them well, then you absolutely should encourage them to go to Vo-Tech and pursue the skilled trades, because where return on investment is concerned, that's definitely their best bet.

I think that a big part of the value of a college degree is that you earned it. You made a commitment to a path of study, you went to class, you took the tests, you wrote the papers, you did the projects -- and you were evaluated as having performed well according to the standards that were set by the faculty member and the school.

I think this is helpful to employers who are looking for some kind track record of performance (besides the applicant's say-so). Of course, it's no guarantee that the employee will be any good but it's somewhere to start when you're hiring, which is why I think a number of jobs require some kind of bachelor's degree to be considered for employment.

If you decide to go to college, be realistic about what you're studying and why. Finish, or be realistic and cut your losses early.

If you decide not to go to college or don't finish, be realistic about what kind of job you can get without a degree or how long it might take you to work your way up to the point where someone with a degree starts.

You're quite right. Having left England when I was 22 and later becoming a US citizen, my personal opinions are quite different from those of my English relatives that are now in their high 80's and low 90's. It's hard for them to accept the fact that England (like Britannia) no longer rules the waves and that its former colonies were given their independance after WWII, and that England is no longer the #1 military power that it used to be in the days of Queen Victoria.

Living here in Silicon Valley we have a large Indian population, primarily employed in the Hi-Tech field. We also have a very unique & prestigious private high school with tuition of $35,000/year. Some of their students always place in the top winners in National Science competitions and when I read about the projects some of these students are working on it totally amazes me. They even offer courses in Special Relativity and Multi-Variate Calculus and it may surprise you to know that nearly all of the students are Asian with a very large number from India. I live on the boundary of one school district and the homes on the other side of the main road are in another school district that has attracted a very high percentage of Asians and has school test scores that rank at or close to the top of all the school districts in the county. The result is that homes in the higher ranked school district sell for at least $50,000 more than similar homes on the other side of the street. The Chinese and Japanese have been in our valley for a very long time indeed. The early Chinese settlers help build the Western portion of the trans continental railroad and the Japanese started many horticultural businesses as well as surviving the internment camps during WWII, then came a large migration of Vietnamese at the end of the Vietnam war, and since the start of the High-Tech Bubble and the issuance of H1-B visas there has been a large influx of Indian families which have all had a very beneficial impact on our local economy. The healthcare field is also dominated by Filipinos in the nursing and medical technician fields. Personally, my wife and I love the international flavor and casual living that Silicon Valley offers and wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

FMF said:
""Roughly the same amount will need just an associate's degree or an occupational credential." I wish they named the top 10 professions they are talking about here."

Based on total employment, I'd say that these would be on the list. Job & # employed nationally :

Secretaries, except legal, medical, and executive 1797670
Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks 1757870
Nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants 1438010
Executive secretaries and administrative assistants 1361170
Teacher assistants 1275410
Maintenance and repair workers, general 1268930
Receptionists and information clerks 1052120
Home health aides 955220
Carpenters 743760
Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses 728670
Police and sheriff's patrol officers 641590
Automotive service technicians and mechanics 606990
Electricians 579150
Tellers 576580
Computer support specialists 540560
Medical assistants 495970

I think these professions are mostly in the 2 year degree or skilled trade category. Thats about 16 million jobs right here.

One thing that doesn't get mentioned often in this discussion is that the unemployment rate for college graduates is less than half (4.3%) that of people with only a High School diploma (9.5%), and 55% as much as people with only some college or an associates degree (7.8%) (see cites)-while I care about the wage premium, being almost twice as likely to be unemployed is an even bigger deal to me.
Now, obviously, some degrees are better than others-degrees that are most lucrative are things like engineering, science, math, accounting, medicine, or a business degree plus LOTS of internships. Then there are job ready degrees like Nursing, Social Work or Education that are essential for entry into those fields.
The problem is that many young adults get liberal arts degrees because they come to college with no clear plan, and gravitate to easy/interesting classes which really are only useful if you get a Masters and/or PhD later (though I've been quite happy with the financial outcomes of my 'useless' Bible degree). And for those who talk about students not 'cut out' for college, while these young adults do exist, a lot more than 30% of the US population could succeed in college if they were properly motivated-I often suggest a 'delayed start' of a year or two after High School while people get a better sense of what they actually want to do with life.

I agree texashaze. I say from experience. I live in Hungary. In fashion to go to university. A lot of graduate unemployment. Profession and there is a shortage. There are no tinsmiths, carpenters, roofers, carpenters. Now, tighter conditions in connection with the university. The government campaigning to the specialist, but it seems unnecessary. Many books have appeared that what to do after high school.

Judging from where I work (a chemical plant), less than 30% of the employees here have or need a bachelor's degree. Probably 50% need/have an associates degree. I know the maintenance technicians, operating technicians, analyzer people all make very good livings. I am a degreed engineer here and most of these positions gross nearly what I gross on a year. Of course, that includes a LOT of overtime, but most seem to relish that opportunity. My son, especially probably would have been better off getting an Associates degree in something with a future rather than the bachelor's he got with no jobs and no future (he is working successfully outside of the area of his degree). He would have saved a ton of money, been in the work force 2 years earlier, and probably be making more money at this point in his career. Once you are in the door with a technical degree, there are almost always paths to move up if you are willing to get added specialized education.

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