Your College Degree: More Valuable Than Ever or Completely Worthless?

A college diploma has now become the minimum requirement for many entry level jobs, even in career tracks that did not require any formal education years ago. Wages have steadily declined for High School graduates and not budged much for college graduates. 

A college degree has become more necessary to obtain a job, but at the same time graduates find themselves deeper in debt, and frequently underemployed, working in jobs that do not require the skills their degree prepared them for.

So is the college degree becoming less valuable, or more essential?

Well – both.

In years past the rarity of a college degree made many employers take notice of an applicant as being qualified for the position. With roughly a third of working adults in the U.S. having a degree now, it is no longer so rare, nor is it always an indicator of a student success, leading employers to become more selective and to demand more from their entry-level workers.

As the country ekes its way out of a recession jobs in many areas are still scarce, making it a tough market for graduates with liberal arts degrees and few well-defined skills.

Employers also show less trust in the worth of a college degree. With the flood of students entering college, professors are under more pressure to grade easily. Students spend less time in college studying, but have higher GPAs, causing many employers to ignore GPA as a signal of a dedicated student.

Richard Vedder writes

American college students on average spent well under 30 hours a week in class, studying, writing papers, and so forth, down about one-third from half a century ago… Students work less for higher grades and spend more time partying then learning.

How to Measure College Value

Now this is not to say that people should not go to college, or that higher education is only about money. Many students are passionate about digging deeper into a specific subject, and college is the perfect place to explore your interests. But all students should be aware of how much their degree will cost, and how much they can expect to recoup after graduation. Will you make enough to pay off your debt?

Many people do not have the interest, ability or desire to spend four (or five or six) of their years locked away in a university studying. It is a mistake to push someone into college who isn't ready for it. The most likely result is that they'll drop out with debt. And there is really no reason one should feel they have to get a four-year degree when in some fields those with associate’s degrees can actually out-earn bachelor degree holders.

Depending on where they are working, many high school graduates do not do so badly either; the median income of a high school graduate is actually on-par with the lowest 25th percentile of college graduates incomes. One of the highest paying jobs in 2012 was Air Traffic Controller with a median salary of $122,000 a year. This position frequently does not require a four-year degree (although some training and/or experience are usually necessary).

The Future of Higher Education

Students are being forced to be smarter about where they obtain their education, how they finance it, and what they do with it. In the end, a college degree is not a golden ticket that allows entrance to all the top paying jobs available. What will help a student succeed is their relevant skills, experience and drive, not a piece of paper that costs them thousands of dollars to obtain. 

Employers value students who have real-world experience, especially in the form of a relevant internship (even more than they value grades). Job seekers need to be more entrepreneurial in their approach regardless of their educational background, viewing themselves as a resource they can market, or creating their own job opportunity rather than waiting for an employer to grant them with one.

So what do you think? Is a college degree more essential than ever, or has it become less valuable?

Ready to graduate with a college degree that will pay you back?