The idea of getting a college education for the sake of learning how to think has become passé. Now, young people see college as an investment, thinking, “If I (or my parents) pay to earn a degree now, I can make more money later.” In many cases, the investment pays off. Most high-paying jobs require degrees, and within industries, those with degrees are often paid more than those without.
But is college always something worth what you pay for it? I still hold the old-fashioned notion that an education for the sake of education is worthwhile, but if you are someone who doesn’t enjoy formal learning and you are getting a degree only for financial gain, you may be better off investing your money in something other than an education. Here’s why:
Some jobs that pay well do not require a college education. While in college, I heard some friends in my school’s engineering program discussing someone who had dropped out because he realized after starting that he didn’t really want to be an electrical engineer; he wanted to be an electrician. Had that would-be engineer discovered after graduation that he really wanted to be an electrician, he would have been able to change his career, but he would have been a few years behind in experience for the job and out more than a few dollars for his engineering degree.
The average salary for electricians hovers around $50,000, depending on the area, which is more than the salaries of many people with degrees. High school students inclined to learn a trade may find that a vocational-technical school and apprenticeship programs would more than adequately prepare them for a career that will earn them a decent wage.
Many industrial areas also have one or two factories that are known for paying well. The competition to get a job at one of these factories is often fierce, but workers with a high school diploma or GED can easily make as much as many of their college-educated neighbors.
Wealth doesn’t always come from employers, either. When researching The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William Danko found that 2/3 of millionaires were self-employed at a time when self-employed people made up only 20% of the population. With some exceptions (physicians, lawyers, and ministers in denominations that require divinity degrees are three I can think of), few people need a degree to work for themselves. Self-starters likely to become entrepreneurs should be capable of teaching themselves nearly everything they need to know to run a business well and to invest their profits wisely. A degree could be handy, though, to make money working for someone else so that you can save enough to start your own business.
On the opposite end of jobs that pay well for those without degrees are jobs that require a high level of education but pay relatively little. Social workers and librarians are two examples of employees who often have master’s degrees but make about the same amount as people in other fields with high school diplomas or associate’s degrees. When, shortly after receiving my master’s degree, I started working at the reference desk of one of Pennsylvania’s district libraries – a mid-level job in the library field – I made slightly less per hour than a friend from high school who had gone to work as a cashier at Wal-Mart after earning her bachelor’s degree in education and discovering that she didn’t like teaching.
People who do these “do-gooder-type jobs usually do so for the love of the work and the people they help, not for the money. If you’re considering this type of work, try some volunteer work in the field before you start school to be certain you will really love what you do. Student loans for high-education, low-paying jobs will likely add a financial burden, rather than bringing you greater financial gain.
Even getting a degree in a field that offers high salaries does not guarantee that a high-paying job will be available for you when you graduate. Our culture has placed such an emphasis on the value of a college education that more and more people are getting one. In 1950, only 3.5% of people in the U.S. had four or more years of college. (I calculated this percentage with figures from the Historical Census Browser.) Fifty years later, 24% of Americans aged 15 and over had at least a bachelor’s degree. As a result of this abundance of people with post-secondary education, more people are competing for the jobs that require an education, and higher-level jobs require increasingly higher levels of education. Back when my grandmother taught at a one-room schoolhouse, she was one of the more educated teachers with a two-year degree from a normal school; now, public school teachers are required to work toward master’s degrees.
Earning a decent wage without a degree is becoming more difficult, but low-wage jobs still need to be filled by someone. Often, that someone is a person who once would have been considered overqualified for the job. When students graduate from college to find few open positions in their field, they may wind up paying off student loans by working in jobs they could have done without a degree.
Is higher education valuable? Yes. Are you likely to make more money if you have a degree? Yes. Is a college education always a sound financial decision? No. Some people do not thrive in academia; some would prefer the type of work that doesn’t require a degree; some will find that their degrees bring much value in the form of higher job satisfaction and quality of life but not in the form of high salaries. When you consider spending money on an education for yourself or your child, think about what you expect to get in return. If it’s simply a higher salary, your investment in tuition is a lot like an investment in the stock market – it will probably pay off, but it’s not a sure thing.