Is a college degree necessary for success?

Why higher education may be a luxury rather than a necessity

Is a college degree necessary for success?

Katherine Loomis, Staff Writer

Over the last few months, seniors have been finishing up their college applications and choosing their future schools, where they will likely spend the next four years of their lives. Throughout this process, I have watched seniors become overwhelmed as they add up the prices of tuition, boarding, textbooks and living costs, and attempt to decrease that number to a manageable amount with the help of many scholarships.

In our world, “college” is more or less synonymous to “success.” We are told from a young age that if we just attend college and graduate, we will be essentially guaranteed a career and consequent financial security for the remainder of our lives. In a sense, college is viewed as proof that one has achieved the American dream, and the rest of their life is destined for prosperity.

But is this common impression accurate? Is the price of college really worth it?

According to one college professor, Bryan Caplan, in his book “The Case Against Education,” Americans waste billions of dollars annually, investing in a higher-education system that teaches too little to too many.

Many parents and students alike believe that going to college is essential to obtain a successful career, due to the observable 67 percent wage premium earned by the average college graduate in comparison to the standard worker’s salary. However, Caplan argues that most of this premium can be explained simply by a college graduate’s predisposed talent, knowledge and discipline that had already been prevalent in his or her character when they arrived on campus for freshmen orientation.

What else contributes to this apparent wage premium? Simply put, a college degree also signals to employers that their hirees were willing to endure four years of (typically) tedious classes and projects that serve no essential purpose other than to test the tenacity of a student and, perhaps, conform to the ideas of our society regarding education.

Caplan calculates that only about 20 percent of this wage premium reflects actual schooling and skill that results from a college education. This means that statistically, the active pursuit of a degree does not impact students’ lives all that much.

In fact, if educational courses are what make students better workers, why don’t more people skip pursuing an actual degree and instead just sneak into large lectures to soak up all of the information that will make them more successful in their careers, at no cost whatsoever?  If classroom learning is what makes a person a better worker, then why doesn’t the job market offer a proportionate wage premium to workers who have completed just two years of their college degree, since graduates who have earned their full four-year degree are offered a sizable bonus?

Yes, professional degrees offer jobs that are more financially rewarding than the service-based,  laborious jobs of people who did not pursue higher education. But can this notion be explained by the predisposed perspective of society that was instituted generations ago?

When the job market was forming, the typical contacts and dispositions of people who had pursued higher education were far more developed than those who did not, thereby creating a preference for college graduates during job application processes and, consequently, a major economic advantage.

However, the grim reality for the graduates of today is that this advantage is not as prevalent as it was in the past. According to a 2011 data analysis by the Associated Press, 53.6 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were unemployed, or, if they were lucky, simply underemployed, which means that they were working in jobs that didn’t require the higher education they steadfastly endured. Think of philosophy majors contemplating whether beauty is subjective or objective as they help a customer find the right shade of lipstick and performing arts majors dreaming of their big break as they sweep up popcorn after a movie.

Despite all of this, not every aspect of student education can be measured through scientific data. There are many more facets of higher education that need to be taken into account when considering a college degree.

Education does have other merits besides classroom experiences.  For example, we cannot dismiss the value of school sports and other events outside of the classroom, such as clubs and school functions, that can reveal interests and talents of students that allow them to shape their character and determination. College also introduces young adults to new ideas and possibilities that assists in fostering a shared set of cultural values and breeding an informed set of citizens.

Simply put, college is a luxury item. A degree is necessary for some students, such as medical school hopefuls who need higher education in order to safely operate on patients. It can also provide priceless experiences that will broaden a student’s mindset and possibly change their outlook on life.

However, the increasing costs of college offset these values for many whose future jobs might not necessarily require degrees. For example, a potential business major might be better off investing $140 thousand in the business startup that they’ve dreamed of, rather than pursuing a degree for four years at a private school that leaves them with nothing to show for themselves except empty pockets and a piece of paper that proves they learned something. Although a college education might somewhat aid in their business endeavors, the money could be better spent elsewhere.

The unfortunate reality of our world is that as long as college graduates earn this 67 percent wage premium, universities will continue to direct their focus towards the number of students they can enroll, rather than delivering a more beneficial education to their current students. Currently, the return investment on higher education is not substantial because the original investment of college itself is insanely high. Despite the public’s immense concern regarding student debt, most colleges have never seriously looked into making deep structural changes that can easily lower tuition without sacrificing the quality of education.

There are changes to be made, such as condensing administration boards, making a more extensive use of teaching technology, altering schedules to allow a more efficient use of space and equipment, and eliminating support for faculty research that lacks impact on students.