The “Value” of College

   It’s interesting that so many people are openly examining the value of a college degree lately.  The subject seems to be coming up because, in this recession, the most expensive items in the marketplace are ripe for cost-benefit analysis.  Even so, the college degree has so come to be considered “necessary” for success, that it surprises us to even see its value questioned in public.

   But somehow, the value of the degree has become synonymous with its dollar return as compared with its cost.  For many, this is a sufficient answer to the question.  After all, statistics could give us a simple comparison of the lifetime incomes of subjects with different education levels.  And from what I’ve seen, the research overwhelmingly finds that the higher the education, the more people earn.

   What I have not seen, however, is an examination of the underlying assumptions behind the research.  Namely, why is the college degreed job candidate superior to one without the degree for any particular position?  In this regard, what does the research say about why employers will pay a college grad more for a particular job or, more likely, why only college grads will be considered for the job?

   One answer could be, and often is, that the job requires certain skills that form the foundation of knowledge needed to do the job correctly.  I can see that junior engineers, for instance, may need mathematics skills that are  simply not part of the average high school curriculum for basic math literacy.  The employer of a junior engineer has the right to expect applicants to have those skills, and the job description will probably specify them.

   But I never had much skill, or interest, in “technical” stuff.  My bachelors is in the notorious “liberal arts”.  I can tell you that my first job after college — as a welfare caseworker — required absolutely no skills that I acquired in college.  I performed satisfactorily, but I could have done the job just as well right after high school.  And yet, I would not have been considered for the job until I got that degree.

   I think my real question is whether the college degree has another function, one that has nothing to do with what we actually learn there.  Some  commentators have touched on this when they talk of the college grad having value even if he or she was “locked in a closet for four years”.

   Exactly.  And yet, the only serious question today seems to be how expensive it is to get that degree, but not whether we, as a society, place much value on what it offers.

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