by Pete Mazzaccaro
A few weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the value of going to college and said I thought everyone should go and that we should find a way to make it more accessible by finding a way to control costs. ["What's a college degree worth," Aug. 22]
Those comments earned a healthy dose of criticism from higher-ed critics who responded to me online.
One commenter, M. Becker, had this to say:
“Absolute, utter hogwash. Everyone should not go to college, and it should not be available to everyone. It should be available to those who are academically qualified to go. Academically qualified, not to provide ‘diversity’ or in the hope of an, ‘equal outcome.’”
Though he or she goes on to acknowledge that “The problem right now is that a bachelor’s degree is roughly the equivalent in the marketplace with a high school diploma of 30 years ago.”
I agree with the idea that in a perfect world not everyone should go to college. We should be able to agree that those who would be happier in a trade go to trade school, and to do so without the social sigma that a tradesman isn’t as valuable as a professional.
And I agree that college shouldn’t have such sway over potential earning potential.
But surveys of annual salaries earned by workers with only a high school diploma earn on average considerably less than their college degree-holding counterparts. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, the average high school grad earned $32,800 annually while the college grad earned $49,800 – 50 percent more.
Now of course there are many exceptions to the rule. And many who go into trades can earn a lot more than $32,800. But they are not the rule, and we shouldn’t mistake them as such.
It would be great if people could leave high school and get the kind of salary on which they could support families. But many of those jobs – from trades to factory work – are gone, replaced by fast-food and retail positions that pay peanuts.
So, yes, the problem is that college is equivalent to high school 30 years ago. And now aspiring professionals with hopes of good careers must go to graduate school and burden themselves even further with debt.
We live in a time when work is more specialized than ever. College may not be necessary, but it doesn’t hurt, unless you consider the cost.
We can address the issue by making college more accessible, or we can figure out a way to engineer an economy and culture that reverses decades of movement away from an industrial economy to a “knowledge” economy.
I have a feeling, however, that the former option is more easily achieved.
It’s appealing to call for an against-the-grain approach in which we find an alternative to higher education’s grip on the world of work, but at the moment that’s easier said than done.