Does is it pay to attend college?

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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33 Responses

  1. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    Number of post-graduation jobs I’ve had: 5
    Number of post-graduation jobs where a degree was required or, at the least, a very good thing to have: 4
    Number of times I was asked my GPA: 0
    Number of times I was asked my major: 0

    I wish I could say I attended college for an education, but that’s not the case; I attended so I could get jobs in my chosen field(s).Report

  2. Katherine says:

    Nice graphic.

    I like that Canada isn’t so focused on elite universities as the US – instead of having a few over-the-top expensive ones generally recognized as the path to wealth and power, we’ve got a larger number of good, reasonably-priced ones.

    My preference for education policy would be to expand the number of scholarships and bursaries for the later years of a degree (there’s loads for first year but few for the rest of the time, which is probably a contributor to the 1/3 drop-out rate), and provide some buildings of residences free to people who keep their GPA above a certain level. It groups together the people who are likely to party less, and ensures that if you actually want to work rather than party you can afford university.

    I’m a Biology and History major in my last year of university. Contrary to the chart, my History degree is actually more relevant to my preferred career.Report

  3. Katherine says:

    The graphic would be improved by also including the average salaries for people without degrees.Report

  4. Aaron says:

    I take offense to the implication that ‘winemaking’ is a frivolous major. It actually requires a great deal of knowledge in biology and chemistry to make good wine. That kind of knowledge could easily be transferred to other science and technology fields.

    That being said, it just goes to show you that you’re better off going to state school.Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    I have worked with managers who have told me that they would prefer a guy who was an Assistant Manager at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut for 4 years straight to a guy with an MBA who hasn’t held a job since a paper route a decade prior.

    I got into IT around the time of the bubble (my degree in Philosophy, if it signals anything, signals “can type”) as a data entry guy. Since then, every job I’ve had is because of knowing a guy who knows a guy or because of knowing a guy.

    The college degree doesn’t signal what it used to signal.

    Corporations are stuck with light nepotism in the absence of college degrees ceasing to signal what they used to.

    Major exception: I know many managers who say that they see degrees from the University of Phoenix or Regis or National American University as sending a signal close to what old degrees used to send… namely “I have Traditional Middle Class Cultural Values and am intelligent enough to be trained.”Report

  6. Scott says:


    You paint with too broad a brush. Maybe it might be more correct to say that it doesn’t necessarily pay to go to an elite college like Sarah Lawrence when good state schools are available. Sadly, college degrees are becoming the new high school diploma as almost everyone has one and many are of marginal quality or value.Report

  7. greginak says:

    there is some interesting stuff here, but the graphic would be more useful if it said how it got some of the numbers. A few of them seemed like they were shaky, meaningless or of questionable parentage.

    FWIW- i have a masters and would not have any of my last three jobs without it. An MA is required in my field and for generally good reasons, advanced training is a good thing in some fields.

    I’m often a bit skeptical of silly course titles and such. sometimes there is far more to them then just a title. however a major of Canadian Studies is quite obviously frivolous and a waste of time and air.Report

  8. Freddie says:

    Erik, you realize who produced this graphic, right? It’s a trade organization for bogus online “universities” like University of Phoenix. They want to undermine traditional universities to leverage their product.. The commenters above are right to point out that there’s a lot of missing information in this graphic– and it’s missing for the simple reason that it undercuts their point.Report

  9. E.D. Kain says:

    Okay everybody. This was mostly to drum up conversation. Personally, I think the only piece of wisdom in the above graphic is that it makes more sense to attend state schools. I also think that many people would be better served learning a vocation, though that’s changing as the world changes, so who knows?

    My own views on education is that people should get as much of it as possible. It’s good for individuals and it’s good for society. I think that globalization will require more and more of us to pursue science and technology degrees, so I hope that more tech-types also get minors in English and History and all those vastly important but not terribly profitable or competitive subjects.

    Either way, a college degree will still improve your standard of living, your competitiveness, and your overall life experience. I’m all for it, though I wish we could fund our education’s better and not acquire so much debt, and I think that the social partying aspects of college have gotten out of hand. Schools need to be tougher on kids, with higher standards and less flexibility. And so on and so forth.

    In other words, I think it does pay to go to college.

    Oh, and Freddie – I didn’t really dig into the source too much. Like I said, this was mainly a conversation-starter.Report

    • Ian M. in reply to E.D. Kain says:

      E.D. could you please provide a shred of evidence that we are need more undergraduates in the sciences and tech fields? You can easily find Master’s fields with inadequate graduates (food science comes to mind), but I need some evidence there are undergraduate only jobs that need filling. Right now those jobs at my university are going to people with Master’s and PhDs. So they are getting 6-9 years of college to make $12-17/hour. If you are not continuing to grad school, undergraduate science is a *terrible* decision. Not sure if the same is true for tech/engineering, but where are you getting this idea from?Report

      • E.D. Kain in reply to Ian M. says:

        What do you think the future economy will demand, Ian?Report

        • Ian M. in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          In a science setting the person making the claim has the responsibility of defending it with evidence. Nice try, back at you.Report

          • E.D. Kain in reply to Ian M. says:

            No, I’m serious. You’ve said this before – that science and tech degrees are not going to be useful in the future. So if that’s true, what will be useful in the future? Where will the jobs be if not in developing new technologies and consumer products?Report

            • Dan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              How many B.A.’s in science and tech does it take to develop new technologies and consumer products? If it takes (X) B.A.’s what happens to wages when X+1 occurs? What happens when X-1 occurs? Does the occurrence of X+1 or X-1 impact the number of people who attempt to get science and tech B.A.’s? Does it change the rate of success in people completing science and tech B.A.’s?Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to Dan says:

                Also – I’m not just talking about BA’s or BS’s. I am also talking about higher education.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Dan says:

                I imagine that there will be benefits at the margins that exceed the benefits we’re currently reaping from the hordes of psychology and/or communications degrees out there.Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to Jaybird says:

                Also – look into the number of teaching jobs out there for science and math vs. the number for English, history, etc. As a society becomes more service oriented, of course lots of jobs will be available in service-oriented positions. But society also becomes more hyper-technological, and demand for newer and more advanced gadgets, medicine, etc. etc. becomes greater. So you have more of a demand for these degrees. Most people who get a graduate level degree in engineering or software engineering (etc) first got a technical undergrad degree.Report

              • Dan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                There are actually less teaching jobs in science and math than there are in all other teaching areas. It’s just that fewer people who have a B.S. in them are interested in these positions because they are more interested in developing new technologies and consumer products. Also because you can’t really teach science to persons who don’t have advanced math skills. What is taught in primary and secondary is a general conceptual introduction to science and not really science at all. At least not the kind that leads to the hypothetical jobs of the future.

                Isn’t this a chicken and egg sort of thing though? Is the B.S. really that valuable in preparing someone for a graduate program in the science field? Or is it simply a hoop to jump through, a barrier to entry constructed to limit the amount of people or sort the people entering science graduate programs?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Dan says:


              • E.D. Kain in reply to Dan says:

                Well I looked into an engineering graduate degree, and my English BA means I’d pretty much have to do a second undergrad degree as a prerequisite to getting into the engineering grad program. A BS in some technical field would save me years of my time and thousands of dollars.Report

              • Dan in reply to Dan says:

                The real question is do you think that’s a problem with graduate school admissions policy or a personal mistake? Do you think what you would learn in a B.S. program would be necessary to the successful completion of a graduate degree in engineering? Do you regret your English B.A.?Report

              • Dan in reply to Jaybird says:

                Keeping those folks of the streets for four to six years drastically reduces public drunkenness, vehicular manslaughter, and venereal disease. It also gives us a higher quality NCAA and top NFL and NBA prospects.Report

              • E.D. Kain in reply to Dan says:

                The real question is do you think that’s a problem with graduate school admissions policy or a personal mistake? Do you think what you would learn in a B.S. program would be necessary to the successful completion of a graduate degree in engineering? Do you regret your English B.A.?

                I don’t know. Having never been in an engineering grad program, it’s hard to say – though I would almost certainly need some more math classes. I certainly don’t regret my English degree, though at times I wish I’d gotten more education prior to having children…Report

              • Dan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                Think about it this way my cousin just got his second engineering job. His first job lasted four months, then he was laid off for nine. He just got the second job, on contract until May. Maybe he gets hired on full time, maybe he doesn’t. If the jobs of the future are there in the future it’ll be worth the seven years of schooling. If they’re not, it wont. The number of engineering degrees coming out of China every year does not look encouraging.

                All things considered, I think you’re doing fine.Report

              • Eric in reply to E.D. Kain says:

                From personal experience, I can tell you that the content of a B.S. chemistry program is essential for completing a graduate degree. The concepts taught at the graduate level build on the concepts from the undergraduate level. If the admissions policies allowed it, you might be able to scrape by via a remedial education covering 25% of the undergraduate program’s material, then learn another 30-50% of the material as you went along (either in the graduate program or during the early years of a career), and the remaining 25-45% you won’t actually ever need.

                I strongly suspect the same is true of any other science (or engineering).Report

            • Nob Akimoto in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              I’m going to have to agree with Ian here. The problem isn’t the number of undergraduate degrees in science and tech fields, it’s the number of graduate degrees. Right now BS degrees are nearly worthless from an actual expertise point of view because the holders of said degrees are basically reeducated from scratch the moment they start real research as graduate students. Developing new technologies and consumer products will come from engineering and science degrees, but they’ll be graduate degrees not undergraduate ones.Report

            • Ian M. in reply to E.D. Kain says:

              You will not be able to pull up a quote of me stating “science and tech degrees are not going to be useful in the future.” I have not said that, you have inferred it. That out of the way, I’m saying we are not struggling for science and tech graduates in the US. Sure there are pockets that are undersupplied (mentioned Food Science, I’ll add Chemical Engineering), but these are graduate programs. But this chart is about undergraduate employment and starting salaries. If you start discussing graduate school you find the real benefit of a private college (acceptance to better graduate programs) and undermine earlier arguments for state schools.
              I talked with a newly minted PhD *today* that was recently told he probably won’t get interviews because he doesn’t have industry experience (chicken meet egg). Graduate students are cheap labor – education with a stipend (about $25,000/yr in research science at Vanderbilt). They grade papers and teach some classes and when finished have relatively poor job prospects.
              Teacher – unless you plan on it, this is also a graduate school, or alternate credential route. In other words, not a career path for a new BS Biology major (with the the added benefit of mediocre wages while being treated like crap – you were a teacher, so feel free to drop knowledge). Going into science is either enlisting for at least 6 years of college (and all the lost opportunity that holds) or a waste of time in a strict pecuniary economic sense.
              Now leaving that aside, engineering is a different beast which I’m not familiar with. I am perfectly happy to let you claim we need more engineers. But in case it wasn’t clear scientists produce intellectual work product, not gadgets – that is the domain of engineers.
              The major job problem in the US job market is not where to allocate our intellectual elite (that would be graduate degree holders), but what to do with all the people who would have worked in factories. Displaced agricultural workers moved to industrial jobs, can we really have a society with an elite of information based workers on top of a much larger service worker class? It seems to be working poorly so far.
              But this was a good conversation starter.Report

  10. Nob Akimoto says:

    Personally I’d be more interested to see data about professional graduate degrees over bachelors, as the former have sort of become the modern equivalent of what a ba was 40-50 years ago (namely the degree you need to actually start a “career” as opposed to a “job”).Report

  11. Ian M. says:

    Having received bachelor’s degrees from a state college and a private college i can say the difference was mentioned by Jaybird – connections. My friends from state school are simply not connected the way the private school grads are. They are doing perfectly honest and boring shit like working in IT for a decent salary and raising a family.

    Being in the process of getting an online degree now I can say what is missing – connections. you get a degree with no job building opportunities on campus (the low paid campus jobs that give you experience), schmoozing professors who know someone who knows someone. I’m going for library science and will be competing against graduates with graduate assistanceships, conference papers and whatnot which are near impossible for someone 180 miles away working full time to match. The concept is called the “invisible college” and it is what you miss with distance education.

    The core stupidity of the graphic though is how much financial aid is given by the college/university. Private schools pay a whopping portion of the bill in grants and places like the University of Phoenix pay dick. My private school was funded such that it cost less than the third best state school in my home state. Why this very basic consideration of college costs is excluded isn’t beyond me – it’s designed to portray online universities as somehow equivalent to attending a campus. It’s not.Report

    • JosephFM in reply to Ian M. says:

      Through what school are you taking the LIS distance program, btw? I’m doing the same on campus (at FSU) mainly for that reason – the connections you get from being a) on campus and b) in the state capital.Report