I’ve had a number of conversations over the last few days that have made me think about the value of education.
Education has been billed in our society as the great equalizer. Get a degree, and get a great job. We come up with statistics about how much more money you’ll make if you just get a college degree. At the same time we have a trillion dollars in student loan debt and college graduates who are making coffees with whipped cream as their current career. What’s going on?
To start with, not all education is created equally. We’ve all heard of, or met, people that got a bachelor’s of arts in 20th century history and can’t find a job. It’s no surprise. There aren’t jobs that use that degree. All it prepares you for is to continue schooling, eventually get a doctorate, and then settle in as a college professor. I love history, but I know that it’s not a valid college major unless that’s the job I want, and let us not forget, there are only so many professors of history out there. Want a job? Get a college degree in science, technology, engineering, or math. Code.org estimates that there will be 1.4 million new computer programming jobs over the next decade and only 400,000 computer science graduates. I don’t know how accurate the numbers are, but that looks like good odds to find a job. A company we’ve worked with in the past conducted an evaluation of .NET developers in the Sioux Falls region, and found that unemployment among that group was at 1%. (They also found that the people who were unemployed were people you didn’t want to hire.) It used to be that a college degree wasn’t required to make it. My grandfather rose through the ranks of his company to be regional manager of a a manufacturing company and he never finished high school. Those days are over. More recently it was “get a degree, get a job” and it didn’t matter what degree. All you needed was the piece of paper to get that great job. Now you actually need training for the job you want. So don’t go to college and figure out what major you want, go to college and figure out what job you want, so that you can get the degree that gets you that job
Secondly, at some point we as a society decided that everyone should go to college, and I say this as a guy who has a Master’s degree, but that’s just not true. I don’t know why we decided that. Maybe it’s an extension of the “everyone’s a winner/participation trophy” mentality, or maybe it’s just unrealistic expectations of what people are capable of, but it’s become a real problem. We end up with people in college that really don’t have a reason to be there, and while they may end up with a degree, they also end up with a LOT of debt. There’s something like a trillion dollars in student loan debt right now (I have my fair share) and if that debt doesn’t lead to a career, then it’s really bad. If you’re taking on student loan debt in an effort to further your career, and you have a fair certainty that it will lead to advancement, then it’s reasonable to do that. It’s much like taking on a mortgage to get a house. Yes, it’s a lot of debt, but you get a house out of it, and as long as the house is sturdy and well-made, it’s a good investment. On the other side is taking on high-interest, debt for marginally useful things, like buying consumer goods on a credit card. Right now, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the unemployment rate is 6.6% (source), which is lower than it has been recently, but plenty of people will tell you that has as much to do with people dropping out of the work force as it does with people actually finding jobs. Now, if you have the means to go to college and get a degree for a career related field, I think you should. The studies are right, you’ll earn more (on average) than if you don’t get the degree, but maybe stop and think about whether that’s the road you want to go down. Maybe what you should be doing instead is getting training for a career. This applies equally to people who are stuck in low-paying no-future jobs. I know a guy who had worked for a number of years at a local call center. It’s just my opinion, but that’s a lousy job. He’s married, and has kids, but there’s just not a lot of future in call center work. A few weeks ago I was talking to him and he said he’d started training as an electrician’s apprentice. I was really excited for him. Electricians are a vital part of our society, and they’re certainly not going to be phased out as many manufacturing jobs have been. He’ll have a job that you can make a career out of, and be proud of. (If your calling in life is to be the best call-center operator ever, then stick with it, but this was great for him.) If you’ve kept up with anything that Mike Rowe (of dirty jobs, and narration fame) is doing, you know that he touts the availability of 3 million current jobs that are unfilled. They’re skilled labor jobs, many of which require hard physical labor, but they also pay well. (think welding, plumbing, etc.) Welders with a few months of training can earn more than $100k annually if they’re willing to work hard, which makes thousands of dollars in student loan debt look less attractive.
Look, everyone has to find their own path in life, and some people should go to college and get educations that will allow them to pursue their dreams. Other people should go get training for a job they’d like and succeed at that. (Everyone should finish high school.) Go into life with realistic expectations, don’t expect to get a job just because you have a degree, and don’t think that not having a degree limits your potential.