Value of a Degree

Time has an interesting piece about the cost and value of a college degree.

(from flickr user tantrum_dan)

There are two notable points made in article. First, this quote from Marty Nemko:
Marty Nemko, a career and education expert who has taught at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, contends that the overflow in degree holders is the result of many weaker students attending colleges when other options may have served them better. "There is tremendous pressure to push kids through," he says, adding that as a result, too many students who aren't skilled become degree holders, promoting a perception among employers that higher education doesn't work. "That piece of paper no longer means very much, and employers know that," says Nemko. "Everybody's got it, so it's watered down.
To some extent, the system is broken. Last week I wrote about people who self-select courses and professors not because they want to learn something or take away anything of concrete value from the course, but simply because they know they are likely to get the highest grade for the least amount of effort. Since then, I've had several people admit that this is exactly what they do. I understand the incentives they're responding to; the system is set up so that what you get out of a course isn't necessarily proportional to what you put in. The article goes on:
The devaluation of a college degree is no secret on campus. An annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute has long asked freshmen what they think their highest academic degree will be. In 1972, 38% of respondents said a bachelor's degree, but in 2008 only 22% answered the same. The number of freshmen planning to get a master's degree rose from 31% in 1972 to 42% in 2008. Says John Pryor, the institute's director: "Years ago, the bachelor's degree was the key to getting better jobs. Now you really need more than that."
This reminds me of an anecdote I read in an economics book recently (I wish I could remember which book). The first woman to wear high-heeled shoes was at a distinct advantage being several inches taller than everyone else. But as more women started wearing them, the advantage started to fade. Eventually, high-heeled shoes generated no relative advantage, but became a sort of "requirement" in social situations. Granted, there's a big difference here, in the sense that a society is better off when everyone is well-educated, but there really isn't much social gain from women who appear a few inches taller. The problem is that the cost of educating everyone is so painfully expensive.

The Great Recession has had some strange impacts. There are people in my class who aren't even bothering to look for work, because enough people have told them they can just "ride it out" in grad school. I'm not complaining if it means less competition in my own entry-leveljob search, but for the people I care about, I'm not sure how it will ultimately play out. Two years from now, if the economy recovers, which person will be theoretically more employable?.. a bachelor's degree holder with two years of full-time professional experience? or a master's degree holder with none?


    On December 13, 2009 austin said...

    unlike high heeled shoes, not everyone is qualified to get a degree. as long as standards do not become a total joke a good portion of the unqualified that are unjustly pushed into higher education by high school consolers and others who believe all children are above average will fail. i do think that too many people are getting college degrees, but at least there is currently a limit to the number who can get them.


    I think, these days, you need to distinguish yourself, whether that's through work or graduate school. Even undergrads, to compete, need to really be excelling. It's one thing to earn a degree doing the bare minimum. It's another thing to really achieve a lot in school. Employers know the difference.