College Worth It? A Harder Look

First of all, I am biased. I am a twentysomething young man whose two bachelor’s degrees (Political Science and Criminal Justice) and master’s degree (Public Administration) did not do him much good when he finished his MPA degree in May 2009, at the worst point of the Great Recession. Hiring freezes were everywhere and any job that was accepting applicants was swamped by 35-year-olds with a dozen years of experience. Despite finally seeing some light at the end of a long and arduous job-search tunnel, sudden events in my personal life made me change my plans.

Now, two years later, I have undergone extensive “professional re-training” and am now a certified teacher. My job search has re-begun in earnest, this time geared toward landing me a job in a high school classroom. Sadly, the teaching job market is about the worst in history right now, and I worry that I “re-trained” for the wrong career.

Needless to say, I’ve spent a lot of time in college. I’ve spent a lot of money. I am hopelessly overeducated and underpaid. Currently, I am a substitute teacher…and sub money is not big money.

Recent articles have argued the merits of getting a college education, with many critics of today’s colleges claiming that higher education is excessively expensive and no longer generates the guaranteed results it once did. No longer is a 4-year-degree any guarantee of a better life. In fact, with today’s economy and lack of new jobs, it’s almost a roll of the dice. After your exorbitantly expensive 4-6 year investment, will it pay off? Close your eyes, grit your teeth, and roll the dice…

Defenders of seeking a college degree respond with the same tired old statistics revealing that yes, earning a degree will earn you much more money over the long term. Politicians claim that America needs more college grads – more twentysomethings earning university diplomas will boost the nation’s economy and help us compete in a high-tech world.

But that true any longer?

Sure, the United States’ economy soared after World War II concurrent with the tremendous boost in higher education brought about by the GI Bill. The tech industry was in high gear and unemployment was low. America was on a mission, spurred, perhaps, by Cold War fears. We studied hard and then earned harder.

Today, without a soaring economy and expanding national infrastructure, I wonder how more college degrees flooding the marketplace raises salaries (taking inflation into account, of course). Everyone in the U.S. could earn a college degree, sure, but would that suddenly mean everyone got paid more? Every custodian and street-cleaner from Maine to Los Angeles could earn a PhD in Waste Management Philosophy, but would that mean society suddenly decides to pay each of them $75,000 annually?

Basically, I see that the number of jobs are not increasing but the number of college graduate is increasing…flooding the market with well-educated applicants. Consequently, education is worth less. For the past 3-4 years the idea that a more-educated generation would bring about economic improvements has not proven correct. If education is becoming worth less and less each years as more and more college grads flood the job market while available jobs do not increase in tandem, perhaps it is worth it to look at other ways to funnel America’s youth into jobs.

I certainly do not regret my time in college and am indeed optimistic that my education will pay off soon, but I hope that somebody revamps the same tired old statistics about the value of college and starts looking at more realistic ways to get young Americans into good jobs without breaking the bank.