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Rethinking the Value of a College Degree

In 1963, I bought a book not because of its titillating cover but because of its provocative title. When I finished reading The Sheepskin Psychosis by John Keats (Delta Book, 1963), I began to question conventional wisdom about a bachelor's degree. Keats maintained that the public has been "wildly oversold" on its worth. College is merely the most convenient place to learn how to learn.

Fast forward 47 years to June 12, when the Los Angeles Times ran the lead front-page story belatedly confirming Keats's prescient observations ("Is a college degree still worth it?). It was not the first report about the arguable connection between a four-year degree and a well-paying job, but it contained some facts that bear pondering by all stakeholders in higher education - high school students in particular.

The current job market shows growth at either the high-end or the low-end. Most positions can be immediately filled by those with a high school diploma and some on-the-job training. So instead of thinking about landing work in line with their intellectual attainment, young people need to adjust their expectations to think about becoming customer service representatives, food preparers and servers, and healthcare aides. These are among the 10 sectors the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will see the greatest gains in the next decade.

If young people want to aim higher, they can consider becoming plumbers, electricians and auto mechanics because these jobs cannot be offshored electronically. These fields, however, typically require licensing based on an apprenticeship and state examination. Those who have no interest in this work need to remember that even accountants run the risk of seeing their jobs eliminated because what they do can be done at a fraction of the cost abroad. There are no guarantees.

There's another serious consideration. As Charles Murray, the controversial author, points out in Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), the notion that college is for everyone is educational romanticism. He took a random page from textbooks used in introductory courses in core college disciplines to demonstrate that the sentences, vocabulary and references demand a certain level of intellectual ability to comprehend. Counseling students who do not possess the wherewithal to apply to college sets them up for almost certain failure.

In case readers think the argument about the overselling of a college degree is hyperbole, they need to bear in mind the latest news. According to just released government data, freshmen enrollment leaped 6 percent in 2008 to a record 2.6 million. Almost three-fourths of the freshmen increase were minorities, of which the largest share were Hispanics ("Record gains in college enrollment mostly from minorities, but inequities persist"). Where will these students find work four years from now if the job market doesn't improve?

Despite the overall guarded picture, perhaps young people can take comfort in the realization that a college degree was never merely about getting a better job and higher pay. It has always been about producing well-rounded citizens able to think critically about issues in a democratic society. This reminder is not likely to quell their doubts after they go thousands of dollars into debt and devote countless hours to earn a sheepskin. But maybe they should look at a college degree this way: a general education will never lose its value over a lifetime. It's like the line from the opening song and title of the James Bond movie: "Diamonds Are Forever." That's something to consider as they make their decision.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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