Is College Worth it? Does Getting a Degree Still Pay Off?


The final notice came in yesterday’s mail. It was another rejection. Ten schools eventually weighed in: four acceptances, one wait list and five painful turn-downs, one of which was of an early decision submission from December.

Emotionally, my daughter’s college application process hurt, but it is finally over. Three long months of stress, worry and tears came to an end with the last “. . . due to the large number of quality applications we received this year, we are not able at this time to offer you a place in the class of . . . [and] we wish you the best of luck in your future academic endeavors.”

I remember one conversation from a week ago. I think it was after rejection letter No. 4, from a school she really wanted to go to.

Her: “I don’t even want to go to college, anymore. I’ll just stay home and get a job!”

Me: “Fine. I saw a sign at the fish market. They’re looking for part-time fish cutters. They’ll give you an apron and a knife. You could do that! Or …”

(Long pause for effect.)

” . . . you could go to one of the schools that wants you, enjoy this great time of your life, figure out what you really want to do, and then try to pick a career that will earn you a little more than the minimum wage you’d get for cutting fish.”

Wow. Talk about your succinct, incisive and all-around brilliant fatherly advice during March Madness. That was a 30-foot, 3-pointer. Nothing but net.

Except, perhaps, for the minimum wage part. That’s going to be a little more tricky.

Bachelor’s Degree Loses its Sizzle

According to several recent studies, that college degree may not be the good-paying-job-guarantee it once was, assuming she actually earns it in four years.

Some sobering numbers:

  • In 2012, there were about 284,000 American college graduates working minimum wage jobs – 8 percent of the total number. That’s double the amount in 2007 and a 70-percent rise over the last ten years. And 37,000 of them had advanced degrees – masters and doctorates.
  • About 48 percent of the graduating class of 2010 work jobs that require less than a bachelor’s degree.
  • About 5 million college grads have jobs that don’t even require a high school diploma.
  • Between 2010 and 2020, the number of college grads will grow by 19 million, while the number of jobs requiring that education is expected to grow by less than 7 million.

(Fade to graduation in 2017):

“Welcome graduates to the new normal in America, where 60 percent of all the new jobs we’ve created during our long economic recovery all pay lower wages than the jobs we lost during the Great Recession.

“But never fear, enterprising young people. You can still look forward to the bright futures that await you in the worlds of food service and retail. Not to mention all the great clerical jobs we need to fill to keep our country moving forward.

“Sure, we’re only talking about making somewhere between eight and eleven dollars an hour. And of course, you’ll never earn enough to afford your first house or start a family or even get out from under all of those student loans you had to take out to be able to afford the education that you may never get to actually use.

“Still, as I look out upon all your shining faces. . .”

(Shudder and fade back to present.)

A Future of Diminished Expectations?

OK, the statistics continue to reflect the reality that over a lifetime of work, someone with a bachelor’s degree still earns considerably more money than those who only graduated from high school. And that advanced degrees are even more valuable.

But it’s just as true that the country has changed profoundly over the past several years. And the eroding value of a college sheepskin may signify a period of diminished expectations and decidedly lower earning power for the young and newly educated elites.

Yes, I still want her to go to college — for all the reasons stated in my reasonable argument. (Even though her higher education will cost my wife and me a decent amount of money beyond what the four accepting schools generously offered in scholarships.)

But what if, after all that time, expense and effort, after growing wiser, more mature and even more wonderful than she is today, there’s nothing out there for her besides cutting fish?

This is the scary notion that no one can answer. One that statistics tell us may be in the offing but that, in our heart of hearts, we really don’t want to believe.

Oh well, at least her time of stress and worry is over for now.

Of course, mine may just be beginning.

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