Degrees and Da Grease
A number of questioning media stories have appeared lately focused on higher education. Does a degree still matter? Is college worth it? Some high school kid highlighted in these stories might have an older brother or sister with a freshly minted degree and no job. The kid and the story ask why he should apply to college and his parents may be asking why they should borrow the money to send him.
I can't begin to answer all of these questions, especially those related to the relative value of degrees from specific schools. The data on the main questions, however, remains absolutely clear and compelling: People who get a post secondary degree of some kind (graduate, bachelors, associate or certificate) do better in the short term and over a lifetime than people who don't. Interestingly, it is not "some college" that makes the most difference; it is finishing. To paraphrase labor economist Tony Carnevale of Georgetown, a degree is the entrance requirement, the library card, for all of the on-the-job learning you will eventually obtain in the workplace.
Yes, there are differences in the lifetime value of certain kinds of degrees (science v. social service, etc.). Yes, there are reasonable questions about how high is too high on college costs. And yes, dramatic changes in the job market will impact the prospects for each of us at various times in our lives. But the research is overwhelming and consistent. A college degree of some kind is a major determininant of the wealth we will enjoy and produce in our lifetime.
Recent studies have concentrated on that wealth generation impact of higher education. It's not just that degreed people are prepared to take jobs in a regional economy. It now appears that just having such people around helps to make jobs. More on the economic development impacts of higher education in a future installment.