Does College Matter?

There’s a general debate that circulates from time to time, about whether a college education is really important. Doesn’t experience count for more? Aren’t there tons of examples of people who have succeeded despite not having a college degree? Absolutely. But let’s take a few minutes and discuss why college may be one of the filters real world employers look for, and why it might not matter a whole lot if your degree is in sociology or chemistry.

The Information in the Census Bureau’s report entitled The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Sythetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings shows the clear financial benefit of obtaining higher education. So why does this idea of experience being the best teacher remain so strong?

We all know intuitively that experience, assuming you were paying any attention at all, can be a powerful. Hopefully, you learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. So does college give people useful experiences, or does it make them book smart at the expense of dollars and gaining practical real world experience? Is it worth the money and time spent?

I’ve come to the conclusion that college is actually about more than just taking classes. It is about developing a set of skills you need to be an adult and practicing them in an environment that is safe and forgiving. For example, during college you often live on your own for the first time. You learn how to (hopefully) manage aspects of self-care you didn’t need to living with your parents- laundry, making/locating food, paying bills, managing work/life balance, and the like. After 4 years of this scaffolded existance, you’re probably ready to have your own apratment and first job without risking eviction at every turn.

You’ve learned to wake up on time, meet the expectations of different people (ie professors), manage deadlines for assignments of different projects at once, and hopefully, have been successful at it. You have developed time management skills. You know how to close loops and finish projects. Sure, it’s school, but real life and almost every job requires this same tool set. Without these life skills of self management and project completion, you’re gonna have a tougher time in the real world of employmnt, where this skill set is needed every single day.

A friend who is a VP at a major bank said to me he would rather hire an english major than a finance major most days, because the english major has developed a set of tools for critical thinking and analysis of literature and ideas. This ability to think and analyze data and information is more important than being a number cruncher- he can teach that skill set if needed, but the ability to be an insightful and critical thinker is harder to teach on the job.

I think college and education become a hiring filter for business because if you have a college degree, you have proven to your educational institution you can finish projects and bring things to a close. You have gained a toolbox filled with useful skills, whether they have yet been tried in real world contexts or not. And in business, that skill set is extremely important.

Statistics looking at the whole population tell us that finishing college is one of the reliable factors in earning a better living. Having a profession degree, like an MD, JD or MBA more than doubles your lifetime earnings over those with master’s degrees or bachelor degrees- lifetime earnings of $4.4 million versus $2.5 and $2.1 million respectively. Those with some college or associate degrees earn only $1.6 million over their lifetimes, and highschool grads $1.2 million. Even more persuasive is the growth in disparity of earnings between those with professional degrees over others, with the trajectory of earnings for those with advanced degrees accelerating while thos with other degrees remaining flat.

While there will always be entrepreneurs who dropped out of school but were so motivated to succeed, they did amazingly well for themselves. On average, a college degree and even higher education seems to put people on a more reliable pathway for economic success, and I think it goes beyond the books themselves, and peaks more towards the life skills gained and ability to self manage and regulate that finishing college or grad school speaks to in the long run.

What do you think? Why is this wrong if you think it’s crap? The stats tell the average story- how do you decide that you are the exception to the rule? How do we prepare our kids to be successful? Do we have them follow the safe, numbers game approach, or do we urge them to break all the rules?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Does College Matter?

  1. Steve Rosenbaum

    The figures about college and success are a little misleading because they don’t account for other possible factors. For example is there an IQ difference between those who go to college and those who don’t. Or..is there a bias among employers rather than the degree itself. Here’s a must see video on the value of college.. http://youtube.com/watch?v=kO8x8eoU3L4

    I don’t know exactly why but Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Michael Dell all dropped out of college while politicians think some who went to Yale and got an MBA at Harvard are stupid?

    I also think you’re friend at the bank would have a hard time proving in a EEOC case that having a finance degree was a disqualifier for employment.

  2. There are plenty of individuals who succeed without a degree. But by and large going to college creates more opportunities and more chances for success. And I completely agree that the life skills picked up over those four years (or more typically six or so years) are a big part of it. But the biggest part is the filter, employers won’t even look at a resume that doesn’t include a college degree. I don’t think they even consider why a degree matters, it’s just the way things work.

    Regarding majors, my oldest (now a college sophomore) who’s considering law school was told over and over it’s not the major that matters, it’s the grades and LSAT score.

  3. I am not trying to pick on people without a degree, (and like I said- plenty of successful people have no degree, but by the numbers, they are the exception, not the rule) or say that it is the only path to success. I am trying to say that if you play the numbers game, you are much more likely to be financially comfortable with a college degree than not.

    Now, that says nothing about happiness, however.

    I am someone with a law degree who doesn’t practice law on a daily basis. That said, the education I got in law school about how the bigger world works was invaluable, and I use that knowledge, as well as the skills of making a case, using language to artfully frame an argument or case , on a daily basis.

    For many reasons, some of which have to do with how we’ve constructed our family, I am not sure I’d be happy in the typical 80+ a week law job. Yet I am thrilled with what I am doing in new media, often 80+ a week, every day.

    The education did not act as a pure funnel into one type of a job for the rest of my life, but it did provide me with useful skills that make every day a little easier to navigate in the real world.

  4. Pingback: Education information » Does College Matter?

  5. Elaine

    Though it is true that a degree can help to open doors, it’s interesting that the various life skills you’ve listed were things I learned in the military – while being paid and living in Europe.

    I did not complete a degree yet make $75k per year. (And have held jobs normally held by degreed workers.) I have been partially lucky and partially bold, but I think my experience in the military was far more useful than a four-year university experience. However, I do read extensively and I am sure I have the “equivalent” of a university education.

    I think it’s ironic that so many people who insist their children go to college will trot out arguments concerning “breadth of knowledge” or “critical thinking”. One can develop these things without attending college. The problem is, if you don’t go, you can’t prove you did. Even if you attended college and majored in partying.

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