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College Degree Obeys Economics Law

The wage premium attached to the possession of a college degree has been repeated so often that it is now accepted as an article of faith.  But the reality is more nuanced ("Training More Ph.D. Baristas at High Cost," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 11).  With the fall semester around the corner, it's a propitious time for high-school seniors and their parents to take a closer look at their assumptions about the investment in time, energy and dollars that awaits them.

There was a time in this country when those with a bachelor's degree constituted a small minority of the population. As a result, they were a special class that could command higher salaries than their non-degreed peers.  But the obsession with college for all has changed matters.  Despite what many people believe, the level of education is very much sensitive to the law of supply and demand. That means when a surfeit of people with a certain level or type of education exists, the job market will drive down salaries.

The only way college graduates can protect themselves is by majoring in high-demand subjects and/or by attending marquee-name schools.  For example, anyone with a bachelor's degree in science, engineering or math from, say, M.I.T will be in a far better position to land and hold a well-paying job than a history major from, say, Southeast Missouri State University.  In other words, the key is to try to distinguish oneself from the masses.  It's not that the education one derives from a third-tier school is worthless.  It's just that the law of supply and demand will always prevail.

The same thing applies to advanced degrees, particularly in the humanities. Many undergraduates persist in the fiction that their prospects for a well-paying job will be enhanced if they go on for a master's or doctorate.  But unless the job market has dramatically improved since 2011 when 43 percent of doctorate recipients in the humanities had no commitment at graduation, this is a bad decision. Which is why economics should be a graduation requirement for everyone.

  

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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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