There’s an ardent, sometimes acrimonious, discussion going on in the comments to this post on the value of higher education at Outside the Beltway. Rather than adding my observations there where they’ll be lost in the din I’ll put them here.
First, to those who cite the statistics on earnings for those with college degrees, I’d suggest a little more caution. When you subtract the relatively small number of those who graduate with medical degrees, those who graduate with law degrees from the top 15 law schools, and a very few others, the expected earnings for somebody with a college degree aren’t a great deal different from those of a high school graduate.
Second, you’ve got to consider opportunity costs as well. Bluntly stated it doesn’t make any sense at all to go into debt to graduate from college as an English major. You’d be far better off getting a job in the trades or with state or local government, e.g. a police officer or firefighter, if you can.
China is graduating about 2 million of its people from college every year. India number of annual graduates is about the same. According to the Census Bureau we’re graduating about 1.5 million people from college annually. Neither China nor India is currently producing enough jobs for its college grads and the pay they’re expecting is a lot lower than that expected by our college grads. My interpretation: if a job requiring a college degree can be off-shored, it will be; if a job requiring a college education can be filled by a foreign graduate, it will be (it’s well documented, for example, that Microsoft pays its H1-B visa holders well below the prevailing wages for those jobs).
A prosperous and secure future takes more than just any old college degree these days. Markets matter and today’s graduates had best pursue a niche that will give them the skills for a lifetime’s worth of different jobs. What is that? I have no idea.
The greater challenge than encouraging more American students to pursue higher education, to get graduate degrees, or to get graduate degrees in science and engineering is getting more American students to graduate from high school. The number of dropouts has remained stubbornly high for decades: roughly 40% of the students in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York drop out of high school or fail to graduate on time. I can only speculate that they don’t see their high school educations as worthwhile and can’t seem themselves performing work that requires a high school education let alone a college education. I have no idea how to solve this problem and I especially see no way that spending more on education will address it. We already spend more on education in this country than any other country in the world either on a per capita, per student, or total basis. We don’t get enough for our education dollars.
One word on computer software development. There are lots of bright, capable, hardworking software developers who are just scraping by (for one thing, there are lots of bright, capable, hardworking software developers in India). IMO the difference between success and survival is salesmanship. The app stores opened by the companies that sell smartphones has changed that equation somewhat but the entire area is still in its infancy. If it follows the pattern of the past, a handful of today’s app developers will be the core of the software development departments of a few large companies that will eventually dominate the field. Might this time be different? Sure. Will it? Beats me. The odds are against it.
Finally, please don’t lecture me on the value of an engineering degree. I received my post-graduate degree in engineering 40 years ago.
There’s a very timely post at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Richard Vedder and a small army of researchers, sifting through a mound of BLS data, have determined something that might be horrifying to some people but doesn’t surprise me at all:
Here it is: approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled—occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less. Only a minority of the increment in our nation’s stock of college graduates is filling jobs historically considered as requiring a bachelor’s degree or more. (We are working to integrate some earlier Edwin Rubenstein data on this topic to give us a more complete picture of this trend).