Is College A Waste of Time And Money?
July 06, 2015

Is College A Waste of Time And Money?

Last week, I got together with a few of my old high school friends.  Our educations differ. So do our incomes. As a high school teacher, my salary was the lowest.  Andy, a former business school graduate, makes a bit more than me.  Joe, a civil engineer, makes more than Andy

Two other friends, Moze and Jeff, don’t have college degrees.  But they make more money than we do. Even better, they were never saddled with college debt. Moze drives a Canadian National Railway freight train.  Jeff owns a business that sells school supplies.

This doesn’t prove that college is a waste of money.  Studies routinely tell us that college graduates earn 60 to 90 percent more per year than those with a high school diploma.  But this past weekend with my friends really got me thinking.  Despite the campfire trash talk, our IQs are likely similar.  Our work ethics are about the same. We also come from similar backgrounds.  What if we polled college and high school graduates who were equally smart and from similar socio-economic backgrounds?  If we compared their salaries, would the college graduates earn 60-90 percent more? My gut says no.   

Among college graduates polled by a National Journal survey, just 49 percent said they believe that students need a college education in order to be successful.  

College graduates do earn more.  But even before they go to college, they have the upper hand.  In general, they have more supportive parents and more family wealth.  They also tend to have higher abilities and more motivation.  Suggesting that a college degree alone, is responsible for ramping wages by 60-90 percent is silly.  It’s like saying basketball makes you tall. The true wage impact of a college education could be closer to 20 percent.

Researchers tracked thousands of people over the last two decades in states with definitive admission cutoffs. Some less selective colleges set SAT cutoffs at 840 points.  For example, students that earn 840 on the SAT, or maintain a C+ average in high school, are admitted.  Those falling beneath this threshold are usually rejected. Students scoring 840 on the SAT aren’t any smarter than those scoring 830. So the SAT college cutoff offers a natural experiment. 

Princeton economist Seth D. Zimmerman says the college students who scored 840 on their SATs earned just 22 percent more than the non-college graduates with 830 scores, by the time they were in their late 20s.

But college graduates need more than a 22 percent wage premium to “break-even” on their education investment. They enter the workforce later.  Student loan debt can ravage them. We cry about the rising costs of medical care, but college tuitions are rising almost twice as fast. Business Insider reports that medical costs have increased 326 percent since 1983.  College tuition costs have increased 645 percent. 
Student loan debt has never been higher.  The New York Federal Reserve says it has hit 1.16 trillion dollars.  The Wall Street Journal reported that 2014’s college graduates with student-loan debt owe an average of about $33,000 each.

To escape such a burden, some students are going for badges and certificates, instead of a college degree.  These could be the way of the future.  I asked Tony Wagner what today’s employers are looking for. He’s an Expert in Residence at Harvard University’s New Innovation Lab.  He’s also the author of the bestselling book, Creating Innovators.  Much of his time is spent traveling—asking companies what they seek from young employees. He also encourages schools to change the way they teach.

“Knowledge today has become a commodity — free, like air,” says Wagner.  “The world no longer cares how much you know. What the world cares about in our innovation era is what you can do with what you know. The move towards skill-based certification, based on mastery — rather than ‘seat time served’ — is essential and inevitable."

For some, a college degree will be worth the “seat time” and money.  This is especially true if the training is linked to a profession.  But don’t believe that any college degree will bring you greater wealth. That’s a costly way to think. 

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