Some Career Pathways Require a Four-Year Degree, Many Don't
Students and their families should not simply assume that college will be "worth it"
November 17, 2011
Generally speaking, more education is better than less. The lifetime earning gap between those with a college degree and those with only a high school diploma is estimated to be close to a million dollars. Earnings aside, there is powerful evidence that those with more education do better on a variety of other measures that we associate with the opportunity to lead a happier, healthier, more fulfilled life.
That said, the question of whether a college degree--especially a four-year college degree--is still "worth it" is not so simple. As with many other things in life, the answer in today's economy is, "it all depends." Here are some facts to consider. First, the unemployment rate of young four-year college graduates today is nearly 10 percent, about the same as the population at large. More seriously, some estimates suggest that the percentage of young college graduates working in jobs that don't really require a college education might be as high as 30 percent. And these numbers mask the fact that nearly half of those who start out in a four-year college do not finish. The point about statistics like these is that in today's economy what you study matters more than how many years you study. Recent data from Florida tell us that 2009 graduates with a technical degree from Florida's community colleges are outearning the average graduate from the state's four-year institutions by over $10,000.
These data suggest that young people need much better information and advice about the labor market before making decisions about what kind of post-secondary education or training will be most relevant to their talents and career aspirations. Too many young people go off to college with little or no purpose or information about the relationship between what they might study and what careers will then be open to them. Consequently, they become "academically adrift," in the words of a powerful recent study reporting that 45 percent of students attending a representative sample of four-year colleges show no significant increase in such core academic skills as analytic reasoning and writing between the beginning of freshman year and the end of sophomore year. Given the high costs of college and the average $25,000 debt burden students leave with, students and their families should not mindlessly assume that college will be "worth it." Some career pathways require a four-year degree; many others don't. Schools need to take more responsibility to help students choose wisely.